Monday, October 11, 2010

TEDx Rainier. Talk and Slideshow. 10/10/10.

The fancy video version should be up soon. But here is the talk from yesterday.

[for a better version of the slideshow - click here]

TEDx Rainier. 10/10/10. 9 minutes. Benaroya Hall, Seattle.

I have had the good fortune of traveling around the world with my table - like one would a boat - bringing coffee farmers together on their farms at a common table to document their stories, as Nassim mentioned my table has ended up on i-5 medians as a tool to spark dialogue about commerce and use of space, this table I speak of has gathered many of the countries leading musicians to sing and share eating and drinking songs, and I have used my table to recreate the classic Greek model of the symposium with thought leaders ranging from Gore Vidal to Mary Robinson to Spike Lee.

A few of my adventures at the table are going to slide by behind me. My hope is that these images create more questions than answers.

These Table-based travels are at the core of a hunch I’ve had for fifteen years

That hunch – is that The Table – the place where we come together and share food – is one of the most important cultural sites in the modern world.

And the second part of the hunch – the common table is in a state of peril.

"We don’t eat together anymore. "

I don’t need statistics to point to today’s bleak conditions of conviviality. The breakdown of the family meal, the prevalence of the drive through, and the rise of the solitary dinner are self-evident modern realities.

Arising from that backdrop there are two main tenets shaping my life’s work

1. The world of progressive ideas is in dire need of civic rituals. If these wonderful ideas we are sharing today will ever take root and leave today's stage and effectively re-shape the world. We need to rethink how we gather, how we convene, the table needs to be part of this rethinking.

2. And secondly, I am incredibly proud to be an active part of the local food movement, and the achievements of the past decade –. But – without meaningful, powerful, new, evocative, inspiring models of how we can share local food, how we can sit together and eat local food – this esteemed movement – will plateau.

In order for the food revolution to gain real, culture-shifting momentum – we need to put the proverbial horse back in front of the cart. Without re-considering, and re-imagining how we eat in community – real progress will elude us.

I am appalled at how little consideration, energy, and thoughtfulness is invested in models for sharing food – and blown away by the remarkable work that is being done in small pockets of this country to reinvigorate the rituals of dining.

This is the departure point / the context within which I have chosen to dedicate my life and work. On this unsteady footing I have put a strange flag into the ground – and decided to call this practice:


I have already gotten feedback that it is too leaden or too sloppy a term. But perhaps with some tenacity I can slip it into low-grade usage.

Tablemaking – working definition. The thoughtful or imaginative or progressive use of the common table. Any action that reinvigorates the common table, i.e. any action that inspires people to eat together.

There are have been profound uses of the table throughout history – here are 3.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas understood the importance of the table and the hearth – as the quintessential site of cultural exchange – a modernist revolution found its earliest spark at the salons and dinners hosted in their Parisian apartment. The NY Times calls the Stein salon “The First Museum of Modern Art”

Every year millions of members of the Jewish faith gather at the SEDER table – history is literally consumed, faith becomes flesh, gratitude for ancestors is solidified and a new year opens up. The artistry and elegance of the Seder ritual should be considered a masterpiece of performance art, it is a grand opera, an extraordinary dance, ageless theatre – and the Seder - got new wings this year when Obama hosted the first ever White House Seder, White House staffer Eric Lesser. "the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware," Obama’s 2010 Seder was the result of a dark basement interlude. In 2008 Eric Lesser and two other staffers gathered an ad hoc Seder in the basement of a campaign outpost. Obama happened upon them – was intrigued - and sat down to dinner.

Katharine Graham was hailed as the most powerful woman in publishing, at a famous dinner party in the mid seventies – a decade after she took over control of the Washington Post and not long after her renowned efforts during the Watergate Scandal – K. elegantly crushed an age old dining tradition. After the last course was served – she told her host Joseph Alsop – that she would rather go home than be excluded from the standard male-only postprandial cigar and whisky discussion. She was invited to stay – and soon became the most sought after dinner and post dinner companion – and a seat at one of her own celebrated dinner parties became known as the most powerful seat in DC.

So we have Obama Katharine Graham, and Gertrude Stein all activating the table in poignant ways – but the more commonplace examples deserve mentioning, the thanksgiving feast, the communion, the ritual of family supper and to me the most important historic use of the table – I call it the harvest feast.

And by this I mean a dinner that results when your neighbor decides to kill a large animal – lets call it a pig. Pigs are big. One family cannot consume and entire animal at one or even several sittings. Historically your neighbor would pick up the phone and ask you to: come eat pig.

And with that simple telephone call - a brilliant and complex interaction of gift culture is established - you are going to need to feed that neighbor.

What do we call the modern / urban harvest feast?

The dinner party.

What makes a dinner party distinct from making a reservation at a fabulous local restaurant - the future - a dinner party implies a future - it is what Marcel Mauss calls "the obligation to return” you might not be roasting a whole pig in return – but a basic obligation to return the cultural exchange is established.

It can be argued that the commonplace urban dinner party carries with it the root of all civil society. The world of giving.

Heady shit for offering up a little stew.

Another thing the basic dinner party has in its favor: the hearth. A center point – what Eliade calls “the axis mundi” - that contains the identity of an individual / a family. There is very little risk, very little vulnerability – and perhaps equally little reward in making a reservation at a restaurant – but inviting someone into your home is human, scary, gorgeous.

Secretary of State Clinton:

"Hearths, whatever they look like, and wherever we gather around them, where we tell our stories and pass down our values, bind families together."

Stated during her Clinton Global Initative talk last month.

And I don't mean to beat up on the restaurant - only to underscore the notion that we need more options - we need many models - and not just the type of dinner parties our parents had - but evocative, compelling new reasons to eat together.

I might also submit that the fear of cooking for other people – the fear of entertaining – is likely encroaching on the fear of public speaking as our nations biggest fear.

Before we wrap I up I urge you to consider the work of my under-discovered colleagues - that are deeply challenging how we can and should come together around food - the folks at OPENrestaurant in the Bay Area, Sunday Supper at Kurtwood Farms on Vashon, Highlands Dinner Club and FEAST in Brooklyn, Outstanding in the Field, and a stunning example Maverick Farms – that is using communal meals in the Blue Ridge Mountains to bring attention to the deeply endangered farming community in North Carolina.

I will have successfully spent my time on this stage if you return home today and cast a different type of glance at your dining room table. And more importantly - if these two questions flit around in your brain and inspire action.

How can we expect to revolutionize our food system without a deep investment in how we eat the food from that system?

And How can we expect to create a progressive state without meaningful civic ritual?
Will you even remember the ideas shared today - how will TEDx Rainier become flesh - I assert that a conversation you are about to have - at lunch - will be equally if not more memorable than anything I have said in these nine minutes. Sharing food intimately can turn the ethereal into a palpable reality.

By now – you should have received a strange kind of dinner invitation. Go ahead and open that up. It is an invitation that actually requires you to conceive, design, and host a dinner.
Yep – it is more of a challenge and less of an invitation - I challenge everyone in the audience – and anyone who has taken the time to listen to this talk on the web – to gather a group in the next week and eat together – with a degree of intentionality or fervor or thoughtfulness And enter into a talk with that group of individuals about the importance of eating together – And I want to know how these dinners go, I want to know what you cooked, or had someone else cook, and how the discussion went – simply jot your experience down on one pots facebook page.

We can start another national movement. And get that word Tablemaking some mileage.

Thank You.

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