A survey last year found that nearly one in five Edmontonians felt socially isolated, a phenomenon linked to poor mental and physical well-being. So in February, the city launched a pilot program called “Hello, Let’s Eat.” People can apply online for kits of plates, cups, chairs and other party hardware for gatherings of up to 24.
“Communities that are more connected and resilient seem to fare better,” explains Chelsey Anseeuw, a City of Edmonton social planner with the Urban Isolation and Mental Health Council Initiative.
The city had a goal of fostering 15 to 20 parties in the first year. There were 13 by the end of July, ranging from block parties to multicultural events. This includes a potluck for 100 that Danny Hoyt organized in June at Giovanni Caboto Park, the heart of Edmonton’s Little Italy. Neighbours, many who had never spoken to each other before, shared pasta puttanesca, orzo salad laced with olives and feta, and cream-filled cannoli for dessert, among other treats. People showed up with platters of food made from cherished recipes. The feast lasted three hours. “I think people feel isolated in urban environments,” says Hoyt, development co-ordinator for the Viva Italia District Association. Events like the potluck “help reopen a discussion that has been quietened.”
Or sometimes, they launch a discussion that might never have begun. Last September, Bri-anne Swan, community minister at the United Church’s Living Presence Ministry in East Gwillimbury, north of Toronto, began holding monthly potlucks in her home to introduce neighbours. She lives in a new development, peopled mainly by newcomers to Canada of various faith backgrounds. “People who moved here wanted to feel connected with their neighbours, but they didn’t know how to do it. The potlucks are the catalyst,” Swan says. “I can see the shift in how this community was a year ago versus now.”
The dinners have led to a WhatsApp group to deal with the practicalities of being a new neighbourhood. Now the mayor attends every other dinner, happy to answer questions. Food, Swan says, lowers some sort of barrier. It carries its own truth. And she’s secretly tickled that food has become one way to upend the notion that Christianity is limited to what these newcomers witness at the televised rallies of U.S. President Donald Trump. Not all Christians see themselves as “the” people. Some are “a” people. It’s a gentle, even radical, difference. And it’s manifested in potlucks. “We are not about making more little Christians,” Swan says. “Our only purpose is to help make people’s lives better.”
Bhattacharya’s third dish for the theatre feast was a dessert: payesh made from condensed milk, thin rice noodles, rosewater and pistachios. It wasn’t crazy sweet, she says, but it was decadently delicious. Her body almost seems to hum with the memory of it.
The feast was a success. There wasn’t a scrap of food left, which she takes as the ultimate compliment.
But she’s still not finished feeding me. She is working on a new production and was brainstorming earlier in the day with her sound scorer — over lunch, of course. She has laid out leftovers: a barbecued duck breast flecked with curried chickpeas, resting on a lightly grilled apricot half, topped with a caramelized baby onion. It’s set on a small handmade rectangular plate the colour of the Mediterranean Sea.
I am trembling. The tender flesh of the meat melts into the slight char of the apricot and onion. A slashing of duck fat lends the whole thing an unholy sumptuousness.
I thank her. She is philosophical. “I think we all need to belong,” she says. “And it’s not just for yourself, but it’s creating an environment for it to happen for other people.”
Alanna Mitchell is a journalist and author in Toronto.
This story first appeared in The Observer's October 2018 edition with the title "Feast."
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