On the lovely Caribbean island of Barbados the tourists flock every Friday night to Oistins fish fry. The fish comes off the boats into the fish market and straight on to the assembled grills to be served up into styrofoam boxes. The choice is very limited – six or seven types of fish served with rice and peas, Mac pie or grilled potatoes. Hundreds of people make the trip and enjoy every minute. This is no silver service, white tablecloth event; quite the opposite. The long bench tables are topped with a beer-sticky plastic cover and huddle up to share the limited space.
In France there are summer fetes where the local food is celebrated in similar circumstances. In the Dordogne we celebrated with music and ate duck with fries on the market square with lots of locals. The only difference was that the tables and chairs were more rickety and the focus of attention was a bird and not a fish.
In Germany the beer festivals are extraordinary mass events with often just one beer, maybe five things on the menu but benches so packed that you have to climb along the centre of two benches back to back and you can only find your table by the balloon raised by your friends!
In Singapore there is an area out by the Polo Club which I knew as the Satay Club where you turn up, sit at one of the benches and vendors sell you satay sticks and then someone else will come and sell you some beer. There is a buzzy atmosphere and the smell of the cooking satay sticks hangs in the air. The benches are full of office workers, tourists and families.
The nearest things I can think of from England were the Jubilee street parties and some village fetes with afternoon tea as a key element. There is also the rather interesting Burger Battle in Birmingham that I visited.
So what is it that persuades people to gather together, eat a limited menu and pay a decent price for the privilege? There are some consistent themes:
- It’s good food. The presentation may leave something to be desired but the advantage of a small menu is that the ingredients are generally fresh and they are things that are often home cooking. The cooks know how to cook them consistently well.
- There is a sense of community that people enjoy. Everyone, no matter what their job or social standing sits down on the bench and eats the same food. Despite what Donald Trump would have you believe, we are a tolerant and social species and we are at our best in groups. We welcome strangers to the events and enjoy that they enjoy experience.
- There is an element of local pride. These are often a reason to celebrate where you come from as expressed through food and drink in a ‘safe play’ area that avoids spelling over into Nationalism.
- Its fun. It’s loud and often accompanied by music and dancing.
I love communal eating and all it represents. People who eat together tend to get along.