Becoming an “Other Human:” On the Role of Eating Together in Crisis Greece
This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.
In the winter of 2017, seven years into the Greek Crisis and deep into a variety of austerity measures that the European Union has offered in response, I read a letter written by a group of Greek schoolteachers and recirculated on the internet (Void Network 2017). The letter decries the Greek version of the show Survivor which, they note, teaches the most antisocial values and makes a spectacle of contestants fighting over scraps of food at a time when many schoolchildren face daily poverty, hunger, and desperation. “Since you don’t have bread, take circuses…about struggles for bread!” The educators argue against the Social Darwinist view promoted by Survivor, and propose instead the values of life: solidarity, mutual respect, and a society based on human values. As part of my ongoing research on food culture in Greece, I had been tracking the use of food both as metaphor and practice to understand and combat the effects of neoliberal policies on Greek society (Sutton et. al. 2013; Sutton 2014; 2016). Thus, I found the teacher’s viewpoint not unusual, indeed it reflects wider themes, and in particular the notion of “dignity” (aksioprepia), which has been a rallying call during past eight years of numerous “crises” (economic, financial, social, refugee) that have become the everyday reality for the vast majority of people living in Greece, and that often are expressed in issues around food (See also Knight 2015). Echoing E.P. Thompson’s (1971) description of the notion of “moral economy,” dignity is a word used to suggest that life is indeed not simply survival, but rather the ability to reproduce a meaningful social world including hope for the future. Part of this reproduction of value, then, comes as a response to the “disembedding” features of neoliberalism, to use Karl Polanyi’s term, which abstracts economics from society and reduces people to numbers and pseudo-rational calculations (Kentikelenis 2018). I have argued that what I call the “robust food culture” (Sutton 2016) in Greece, which attunes people to the sensory and social dimensions of food, acts as a break, an imaginative space, or a sanctuary, against the social disruptions and anomie caused by the past eight years of “fiscal waterboarding” (Varoufakis 2017) that Greece has undergone. Food initiatives range from the anti-middleman “potato movement,” and other direct buying movements (Rakopoulos 2013, Aggelopoulos 2017), to seed sharing (Margomenou & Papavasiliou 2013) to many meal-based charity initiatives (Kravva 2014; Douzina-Bakalaki 2016) to the “social kitchen” movement which is the focus of this article.
This short essay explores the power of eating together as a symbol and practice of social relations with powerful political implications in our contemporary times of neoliberal austerity and xenophobia. Food can be used for many purposes, of course, and there is nothing inherent in food that prevents it from being turned to exclusionary practices or capitalist commodification. However, food does bring people together throughout the world, and it would not be hard to suggest that there is something in food and eating that affords connections between people. Here I wish to take another look at a longstanding anthropological term: commensality, and suggest some of the ways that it can be re-examined in the present context. I will argue that certain aspects of commensality, in particular its possibilities for resistance and its appeal to the senses as a basic aspect of its effectiveness, have been under-explored anthropologically. Indeed, that these two aspects are connected, as others working on “the politics of the senses” have argued (see e.g., Trnka, Dureau & Park 2013). In returning us to commensality, and the conviviality that can in many cases be built from it, I suggest how food provides a sanctuary to some of the depredations of endless economic crisis in Greece in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Commensality, or eating together at a shared table, has become a taken-for-granted part of food’s significance in symbolizing and reproducing identity for those in anthropology and food studies more generally. And yet, it was only in the mid-1990s that anthropologists started to rethink the role of food in not simply reflecting the social order or symbolizing identity, but actually creating the “shared substance,” which many anthropologists now think of as the key aspect of making up kinship relations in a post-biologically determined understanding of relatedness (Carsten 2000). Yet, the more I started to think about commensality, the more I began to wonder what food scholars are actually saying about it. At a recent food conference, I asked a colleague who was presenting on commensality, and was one of two or three leading figures associated with the growth of food studies in anthropology, what were some of the key reference points for the scholarly study of commensality. Her response was “I’ll get back to you.” This reflected not her lack of diligence, but rather how much what we know about commensality was simply taken for granted in contemporary anthropology and food studies. In particular, I felt the sense of a gap, not in discussions of the importance of commensality itself, but in discussions of commensality as emergent process, and connected to that, ethnographic descriptions and analyses of commensal moments and their implications. I was struck by a void in what seemed to me from my own research in Greece to be essential to the power of commensality: that is, that it brings people together in a rich sensory environment, much like that of our classic notion of the power of sensory intensity as one of the motive forces of ritual practice, a point which I will return to further below. Beyond exploring the role of commensality as a response to crisis in contemporary Greece, I will argue that it is high time to return to commensality in anthropology more generally, and to explore its relation to other analytic terms which are also in the process of reexamination such as “sociality” and “sociability.” (Moore & Long 2012; Glick Schiller & Caglar 2018).
Greece in Crisis: “The Other Human” and the Struggle for Shared Dignity
Many of the meal-based initiatives such as the “kitchen of love” that many local churches sponsor throughout Greece are considered “charities,” but are not, in fact, commensal, in that they do not involve those preparing the meals in sitting down to eat with those receiving the meals (indeed, they may simply prepare meals that are taken away and eaten at home by the recipients (see Douzina-Bakalaki 2017 for an extended description). The “social kitchen movement” takes its place in the food landscape in Greece in contradistinction to the church “meals of love.” The latter are typically seen as based on a hierarchical or vertical model of charity. The social kitchen movement, by contrast, is based on a horizontal model of “solidarity,” in which everyone contributes what they can, and meals are eaten together. “The Other Human” social kitchen started in Athens in late 2011 and has expanded all over Greece. It has been quite successful ever since then at gathering together several times a week and cooking a meal in public location with the idea that anyone who can should contribute whatever they can, and anyone who cannot contribute should simply come. This small act of commensality has had larger reverberations as part of the food landscape of Greece under crisis: it is directed very much to the notion of “dignity,” and holds out the possibility of social reproduction rather than simple survival through the power of commensality.
The founder of the movement, Kostas Polychronoupoulos, tells the story of the origins of The Other Human as follows: he lost his job (in marketing) in 2009 as a result of the crisis. Like so many others in a climate where unemployment reached close to thirty percent, he “lost everything,” and moved back in with his parents. In the midst of despair, he observed one day two kids fighting over some rotten food that had been left in a dumpster near a farmer’s market. What bothered him about the scene was that nobody paid attention, they simply walked past. It reflected the “indifference of contemporary times,” what I might want to term the loss of sociability and alienation of social relations discussed above. That is when Polychronopoulos decided to simply start cooking food and distributing it—first a few sandwiches with friends. He says that he didn’t want to give this food away “like a charity.” As he put it, “It’s a bad thing to offer food and walk away. Better to eat together, that’s what unites us.” In a pamphlet on their website, the Other Human describes its purpose as follows: “The idea of the social kitchen ‘The Other Human’ is an act of solidarity and a manifestation of love towards our fellow men, with the hope of awakening awareness and for there to be other similar actions from other individuals and from groups. These actions are not philanthropy or charity. We cook live, we eat together, and we live together” (cited in Serntedakis 2017: 90). As this makes clear, participation is not meant to be one off, but to be regular (ibid, ), and to extend beyond the act of eating. Given the spread of The Other Human, it is clear that in this regard they have been tremendously successful. Indeed, Polychronopoulos stresses the importance of communication as a starting point for rebuilding society, communication across any differences of class, race or political orientation. That is what the meals are meant to facilitate. The name of the group “The Other Human” is meant to suggest a response to the loss of humanity brought on by the crisis, or simply modern times—beneath the individualistic people we have become lies “an ‘other human’” who cares for those around him, but which must be brought out through the act of sharing a meal and a conversation. The Other Human, then, is a rejection of neoliberal subjectivity.
The Other Human is not a potluck. They gather ingredients and cook together in public, with many hands pitching in to chop onions, to open cans, to mix and stir the ingredients, to add spices, to pass out the cooked food and to clean up afterwards. A large cooking pot and a larger spoon are ubiquitous at these events, and while the former may be symbolic, the latter seems to draw in multiple hands to share the task of stirring among those assembled, men and women, young and old. Polychronopoulos stresses that everyone should bring what they can, some will bring an “onion, a package of spaghetti, some tomato paste, a bit of oil” and from this we can create a meal where we can all eat together. At other times he notes that some can’t contribute food, but they can contribute “a smile, a hug, a handshake, a bit of conversation.” Indeed, some of the Other Human groups are put together by volunteers who may be homeless themselves, relying on food donations from the central Other Human group, while others are able to afford to bring food to cook or gather donations from friends (Marovelli n.d.). Typical foods include pasta with tomato sauce, lentils with rice, and meat or chicken with rice, known as “wedding pilaf” which is suggestive of a festive atmosphere even if the pilaf is lighter than what would typically be prepared at weddings (lacking goat butter, for example) (Marovelli n.d.). At times, Polychronopoulos stresses that the food itself is not key, it is simply the means to build social relations. But at other times, as he carefully stirs a pot, he notes not just the dish, but each of the ingredients that can be distinguished within it: so one dish is not simply lentils with rice, but “lentils with rice, with mint, a little onion, rosemary, cumin…and we’ll eat it all together.” Serntedakis describes one such gathering at a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos:
…there are plenty of people at the big table chopping the ingredients for today’s recipe, such as onions, carrots, chicken, and more. The composition of the group is very diverse, and in amongst the locals one can easily spot refugee women, men and young people, all sitting together, helping with the preparation or chatting. As soon as the oil has boiled, Konstantinos [Polychronopoulos] gives the signal to put the vegetables in the cauldron, and says: ‘Do it all together, that is how the food becomes tasty. After the vegetables, we add water, and then we have to leave it for an hour, so we have plenty of time to get to know each other…The food is shared with none of the tension or shoving that attends its distribution at the Moria camp. (Serntedakis 2017: 92).
In these scenes, we see reflected the importance of taste to Greek food culture, and cooking to sociability. But more than taste, it reflects a sensory engagement that is part of the experience of commensality in Greece. This sensory intensification is a clear component of The Other Human gatherings, in which cooking combines smells, tastes, knowledge, history, and the human proximity of eating and talking across a common space, which Polychronopoulos stresses as his ultimate goal. One often finds music and sometimes even dance and marching as part of the program of The Other Human, inducing the high spirits (kefi) that are a recognized part of collective rituals in Greece (as elsewhere, of course). They also sometimes combine their events with other collective gatherings such as anti-austerity protests or even music festivals (Marovelli n.d.). How might we theorize such events?
Retheorizing the Commensal
The centrality of commensality in affirming social relations has been long indisputable in anthropology. It is interesting, however, that few writers on commensality stress the importance of the sensory nature of commensal events in the creation of sociability. On the other hand, those working on ritual may use commensality as one example of typical ritual practice. Victor Turner gives examples of commensality in passing in his studies of pilgrimage (1974), as he quotes Malcolm X describes his experiences of Hadj “’Love, humility, and true brotherhood was almost a physical feeling wherever I turned…All ate as One’” (1974: 204, emphasis in original). Turner also contrasts simple food exchange with sharing cooked meals, noting: “Even the egalitarian reciprocities involved in exchanges of consumer goods such as uncooked food assert some degree of distance, as against sharing the same meal, the anthropologists’ “commensality”—which, caught into the exemplary and paradigmatic medium of ritual becomes ‘communion’” (1974: 272). Here, we get a sense of how some of Turner’s approach to ritual as intensification might apply to commensality, a theme, however, that he did not develop at length. The work of James Fernandez resonates with this set of ideas in another way. While Fernandez did not use the term commensality, he wrote frequently of the importance of “conviviality” (1986; 1990), or of sociable life together, which he describes as precipitate of a ritual process in these terms: “They exit like the members of Fang Bwiti into a condition of solidarity and conviviality, chatting amiably together at the side of the circle, their impure and tormented individual condition assuaged by the common action on them all of the Holy Spirit.” This is the notion of the “return to the whole” which Fernandez sees as a key function of ritual revitalization, and which could very much describe the explicit project of The Other Human to bring people back to a sense of shared humanity through food. Fernandez also argued that such processes of creating “one-heartedness” are inherently tied to “con-sensus,” which he described as a “congress of the senses” or “synesthesia” (1990: 4), which he compares with Turner’s “notions of the necessary ‘interchange of qualities’ that must lie at the heart of effective ritual action” (1990: 16). Such a view of commensality as process, involving aspects of ritual communitas or anti-structure puts the stress on the potential political nature of such anti-structural conviviality, shifting the focus from simply confirming categories of allegiance or political relations of hierarchy. In the wake of the crisis, the Other Human works to restore some of those sensory experiences, to put people back in touch with the “other human” that is exemplified in acts of sensory intensification and commensal sharing.
The generative aspect of commensality, based in its social, emotional, and sensory intensification, is perhaps best captured, however, in Adam Yuet Chau’s phrase “The sensorial production of the social.” Based on his research in China, Chau develops the point that the sensorium is not simply perceived in culturally specific ways, but is also produced as part of social life, as part of “how social actors actively construct their social worlds in sensorially rich manners” (Chau 2008: 488). It is in this process, which involves different activities (dancing, getting hot, cooking, feasting, toasting, etc.), and different social spaces (temple, market, dance floor), that “red hot sociality” or “honghuo” is produced. People create honghuo through their social proximity: “the more people the more honghuo…Embedded in this belief is a premium put on the warmth or heat generated from human sociality and a fear of, or distaste for, social isolation, which is associated with loneliness and coldness” (2008:497). While Chau only mentions food and eating as one example of red hot sociality, Oxfeld, working in another part of China, makes the explicit connection between this idea and commensality as key form of conviviality. Where Oxfeld worked the term is renao rather than honghuo, but she gives it a similar interpretation, noting that renao is a concept that combines emotions, social relations and sensory stimulation, which allows for a celebration of social connection. While such gatherings can be hierarchical or egalitarian, according to Oxfeld they are always aiming to achieve conviviality, which “’is constitutive of living in a socially meaningful way’” (161). It would be productive to compare “red hot sociality” to the Greek concept of “kefi,” which is translated as “high spirits…a heightened form of experience” (Cowan 1990: 105; 107) or “a state of pleasure” (Loizos & Papataxiarchis 1991: 17). Kefi is an ambiguous term, that can be an individual state, but ideally reflects a “sociable enjoyment” (Malaby 2003: 139), thus it seems important to think about in the context of movements like the Other Human, which are struggling to counteract notions of individualism (at least of the Western, neoliberal variety).
The approach I am advocating toward commensality, then, focuses on processes of intensification by which the production of sensory and emotional intensity allows for the creation of a sense of conviviality or consensus. Notably these connections are built not based on kinship or ethnic similarity, indeed they may be an alternative to the strains of these ties, as Kentikelenis points out, but rather across assumed differences. In this regard they resemble Glick-Schiler’s concept of cosmopolitan sociability, which she uses to counter the assumption that organization is easier along ethnic lines. As she argues (2016: 7): “The welcome that some Europeans gave the refugees in the fall of 2015 was not an expression of tolerance to strangers, but an acknowledgement that we are all facing the consequences of a global warring, and the depredations and displacements of capital accumulation. In that sense, we are all refugees.”
I have argued for a recentering of the concept of commensality, which has come to be too taken for granted in our anthropological toolbox. In particular, I have suggested that a focus on eating together as a political act—often of resistance—which highlights the tangible “con-sensus” and conviviality of people displaced by contemporary political-economic processes might be a useful starting point for an analysis of recent struggles in Greece and elsewhere. The point, then, in stressing the sensory production of the social in the case of commensality is not to suggest that it is an automatic process, but rather that it takes work to create con-sensus and conviviality through commensality. This raises ethnographic questions in understanding a movement like The Other Human. First, how does the choice of food to cook effect the process? This is especially an issue as The Other Human works with refugee populations on Lesvos (Serntedakis 2017) or, increasingly, across national boundaries. While pasta seems to be a staple and a relatively safe choice, in other refugee situations such as in Italy, there seems to have developed a growing resentment among migrants from Africa of the overwhelming reliance on pasta as their food rations. One counter-example is provided by an event organized by the Melissa Network, a center for female migrants and refugees which has been providing multiple sources of support since the mid-oughts. An event that I attended in the Summer of 2017 involved a local restaurant which opened one afternoon for about 25 women staying in refugee camps who were from Afganistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The restaurant owner/chef prepared an elaborate meal for them, but also engaged them in preparing one dish: stuffed grape leaves. This was a dish that all the women seemed familiar with, but each with different variations. While these variations didn’t play out in the ingredients—they did in the techniques for rolling the grape leaves, which varied in style and results, from long thin cigarette-like shapes to short, thick, mini-burritos.
David Sutton is Professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Since the early 1990s he has been conducting research on the island of Kalymnos and has published three books based on this research: Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life (Berg, 1998) which explores Kalymnian historical consciousness, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (Berg, 2001), and Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (California, 2014). He has been currently researching the role of food in understanding the Greek economic crisis.
A longer version of this essay is under consideration as part of a collection of essays edited by Virginia Nazarea and Terese Gagnon and tentatively titled, Categories of Forgetting and Remembrance: Itineraries and Sanctuaries. Thanks for editing and feedback to Virginia and Terese and to Leo Vournelis and Peter Wogan. Thanks to Brigida Marovelli for sharing observations from her not yet published work.
Photo: Eating Together, David Sutton
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Void Network 2017 Life! Not Survival! Text-(katteggelia) Against Survivor by Teachers. March 27, voidnetwork.gr/2017/03/27/survivor-skai-2017/
 That is, that food is one of a number of possible things, including “blood” and “genes,” as well as labor and other shared activities, which will, in culturally-variable ways, be seen as constituting the shared substance of kinship.
 There are more subtle distinctions here, and some have rejected these categories. See Theodossopoulos 2016, Rozakou 2016, and Douzina-Bakalaki 2017 for extended discussions.
 For a review of the framing of commensality in anthropology, see Anigbo 1987. Khan 2014, and Kerner, Chou and Warmind (eds) 2015.
 Some anthropologists, as noted above, discussed the notion of mutual shared substance created through commensality. Anigbo (1987: 14) finds it “repugnant even to think that sharing food would involve participants communicating their substances to one another.” For a more complete discussion of the anthropological literature, see Sutton n.d..
 Synesthesia is a key element of Greece’s robust food culture. For a discussion, see Sutton 2001, 2016.
 Or as Vergunst & Vermehren write, “sociality [as] actual activity rather than  preexisting context or structure (2012: 191). To move from sociality to sociability, in their view, involves a coordination of sensory experience, or mutual tuning-in, much like Fernandez’s notion of con-sensus.
 Some food distributions have occurred in specifically exclusionary fashion as organized by the Greek fascist party “Golden Dawn,” and meant for only “ethnic Greeks.” Notably, these do not typically seem to involve the occupation of public space for cooking and eating together, but simply to distribute food. But also see the following on one-pot (sometimes shared) meals in Nazi Germany: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/one-pot-meals-nazi-germany-eintopf
Published on September 5, 2018.