Politics aside, people love talking about their food. If you really want to start a conversation, begin talking about food and my guess is you will not stop talking until you start eating.
Long before I knew who Anthony Bourdain was, I knew the power of food to bring people together. I witnessed it in my own home as my mom was a great cook. I really didn’t know she was a great cook until I began working at Leo Burnett Advertising in 1999. But before I talk about that, I must mention that all during my childhood people would come to my house to eat. I never thought that they came because my mom’s cooking was so fantastic. Now, I thought it was fantastic but that was because her cooking was all that I knew. She would make breakfast with bacon, sausage, grits, pancakes, porterhouse steaks, corn fritters, French toast, candied apples, salmon croquettes and omelets. I know, this sounds like a feast anyone would love but know she had to cook a lot because she had eight of us to feed. Of course, all this familial cooking does not mean that others would find the food tasty, which brings me back to my discovery at Leo Burnett.
One day I decided to invite a friend/co-worker over for dinner at my mother’s house. That friend exclaimed that the fried chicken, mash potatoes, corn on the cob, broccoli and coconut cake my mother made were the best they had in a long time. I thought this was just their politeness but over the course of a year, I invited more friends from work. All raved about the food, so much so, people started making reservations to come to my house. It got to the point I had to tell the people I invited to never mention at work that they were invited to dinner. But that didn’t work as I got in a lot of trouble when folks found out that one friend was invited and another was not.
I learned two things from this episode. First, my mother could cook, really cook. She put her foot in it and then some. Second, I made real connections over sharing a meal. Those connections were made regardless of the different political, religious, ethnic and social views each of us had. Many times, all we talked about was food. “Mrs. Ponder, what is your secret to a great cake? How do you get the chicken so crispy, brown and tasty? Who taught you to cook?” were some of the standard questions. But it also got personal “Reggie why do you separate your food on your plate? Why do you eat everything one dish at a time? I noticed that you eat all of your potatoes and then all your corn, what’s that about? Why do you get irritated when I ask for a taste of the food on your plate?” These questions are all about food but revealed things about me that helped them know me and if you don’t know by now, the answers always came with a story (Please do not send requests for me to answer any of the aforementioned questions).
Food at my house was a unifier and helped to let us know that we had something in common. Occasionally, when those same friends and I would go out to lunch, we would compare foods and I would frequently hear them say “but your mom’s was better.” I liked that. My mother taught me to ask people about their mom and their food. Each time they would open up and talk about the foods they loved and why. Full disclosure, I am a picky eater so I dreaded when they would invite me to try new foods because generally, I don’t like new foods. But, I went, I ate and I conversed. Additionally, some of my friends would surprise me with my favorite dish when they went out for lunch and I was stuck in the office. Yep, we bonded over food.
My mother knew the power of food. She knew food was all about love. There is a love and care put into the food by the preparer; there is the love of the food by the recipient and there is a love of sharing food with others. Anthony Bourdain also knew the power of food and although my mother died before he came to prominence, I’m positive that My Mother Would have Loved Anthony Bourdain.
Homework – try asking someone to lunch and make it a point to go to a restaurant that either represents the food you or your invitee loves. Talk about the food and who knows where that will take you.
Thank you, Carrie Ponder, and thank you, Anthony Bourdain.
Reginald Ponder is a marketer for the Kaleidoscope group. He is also an Adjunct Professor at North Park University School of Business and Nonprofit management and a film critic for 91.1FM (Chicago)/Vocalo.org.