by Steven Le, Founder of Le Mobile Feast
It’s no secret that food brings people together. The preparation and enjoyment of it forge friendships and strengthen family bonds, as each occasion like Thanksgiving reminds us. When we gather at the table and share stories, we participate in a uniquely human activity. Since the paintings on cave walls, humans have sought to pass on knowledge, wisdom, and humor through narrative. Storytelling is at the core of who we are. What we share and how we listen to each other form the foundation for not only our relationships but also our identity. In the past nine months I’ve confirmed these truths at 97 dinner parties in almost as many homes.
I’m 25 states into a road trip across the country with the goal of cooking a dinner party in every state. I’ve reached the midpoint of the two-year journey I’m calling Le Mobile Feast. The 97 dinners have occurred in 93 cities and included more than 700 plates of food. As I sit and write in the bedroom belonging to my hosts’ son who’s away at college, in Watertown, Connecticut, I can see white flakes zigzagging to the ground, adding to the two inches that last night’s snowfall delivered. By count of states, I am halfway through, but I’m realistically looking at another 14 months or so of travel before the journey comes to an end. And from the start, this project has not been just about that simplistic goal.
Le Mobile Feast began on February 12, 2016, when I departed San Diego in a car packed with half of a kitchen. Namely, I brought along plate settings for 12 people and enough pots and pans to cook a dinner in a park or campground, so long as there’s a heat source. In addition to the hardware, I have several containers of spices, oils and vinegars, various flours, and a small cooler that provides refrigeration for some of the staples that I can’t rely on finding everywhere—like fish sauce, homemade jams, and a jar of duck fat.
I’ve never formally trained as a cook and had learned most of what I know by watching my mother while growing up and later chefs on TV. The first time I got to cook in a professional kitchen was in Tulsa, in March, when the patron chef of Millicent Brasserie gave me free reign of his restaurant for a day. Chef Vincent became my sous chef (at times deferring to me against his better sense), and together we prepared a six-course meal to honor 12 people, most of them public servants in the community.
Until I came knocking on the restaurant’s door the evening before that dinner, Vincent and I had not met. We did speak on the phone, along with Vincent’s friend Amber, whom I also had not met but who had arranged for my stay in Tulsa through the website Couchsurfing. com. In fact, at this writing, some 65 percent of my hosts in the past nine months have been strangers until I arrived at their door. I have said many times that “I’m usually the only stranger at the table.” Only a small number of hosts have come from the travelers’ website; many more have been friends or family referred by previous hosts.
At the first official LMF dinner party, in Flagstaff, Arizona, one of the guests commented: “We came as strangers and left as friends.” Thus far, it’s been more than apt as a motto for Le Mobile Feast. (Although I launched from California, I will only count it as the destination state upon returning.)
Whenever I share with people what goes on at any of them, it becomes clear that the dinners are about much more than the food. Of course, I always try to fill the table with as tasty a spread as I can, and I’ve spent upwards of 24 hours of cooking to do this. (That was for a sit-down dinner for 26 adults in Denver, Colorado.) Before we get into what it’s really about, however, I should explain briefly the food and cooking part.
The Soul of a Menu
The menu for each dinner party depends largely on what the hosts want, taking into consideration any food allergies and availability of ingredients. How much time we have to prep and the size of the kitchen and types of appliances factor as well. I’ve baked three loaves of bread for one meal—one at a time—starting the dough a full day ahead. On another occasion I met my host at the grocery store even before we set foot in her house. We didn’t have time to meet beforehand and then shop, and so I was asking her about the layout of her kitchen and ingredients she already had while we were shopping for that evening’s dinner party for eight. I have a fairly large and diverse repertoire, and I have learned to make things for the first time on more than a handful of occasions. The keys are flexibility and imagination, starting with what the hosts already have on hand and what exists in my back-seat pantry.
As much as possible, I try to meet the needs and preferences of my hosts and their guests. I also pitch the menu to them as “a treat,” something that they wouldn’t make for themselves. If nothing immediately comes to mind, I’d rattle off a few dishes that others have enjoyed. One popular meal thus far I call “South Vietnam meets South United States.” It’s country style pork ribs braised with hard-boiled eggs in a rich broth for several hours. I would bring the Dutch oven to the table and let diners spoon the tender meat and broth directly onto creamy grits—real grits, mind you, that takes at least an hour to cook. I also would suggest that people cut the egg lengthwise to see the coloration that occurred as it cooked in the dark caramel broth.
Most things I cook come with a story, and that main dish’s takes roots in how two groups of peasants have transformed a few simple ingredients into decadent flavors. More important than the stories that accompany the food are those that each person brings to the table. In fact, many people have reacted to my descriptions of an LMF dinner by reflecting, “It’s not about the food, is it?”
“You’re right,” I’d respond. “It’s about the stories. The food just helps keep everyone sitting at the table for several hours to share those stories.”
When Stories and Food Combine
Somewhere around Louisiana I adopted a practice that facilitates the story sharing that has since occurred at almost every dinner table. I credit two friends from San Diego, Jean and Joe, who first introduced the simple ice breaker at a New Year’s dinner that they hosted and I cooked for. They had asked each of us to share how we knew anyone else at the table in our self-introductions.
For the purpose of the LMF dinner parties, I have rephrased the question and added two rules to the discussion. I ask everyone to respond to: “What brought you to the table—where you came from, what are you interested in, and what relationships do you have with those at the table?” The first rule is that we would go in a circle, and each person could take as long as she’d like. The second rule: we may interrupt the storyteller only to ask clarifying questions. It’s this second rule that has enabled the many of us to be delighted and deeply touched by other people’s stories.
“It’s Story Corps with food and wine,” wrote one dinner guest from Alexandria, Virginia in a book that I invite people to write in; I call it the Host Book. She was referring to the program on NPR that places (usually) two people in a recording booth and prompts a conversation between them. In the conversation, one person asks questions, and the other shares uninterrupted.
I found the comparison an apt one, and it’s the kind of listening I ask us to do at the LMF tables that makes it a powerful experience for us all. In most cases, I would ease everyone’s potential worries by explaining that my intention is to celebrate people and their stories, and not to expose anyone or criticize. My number one rule, I’d say, is “Don’t be a dick.” As such, I do not take notes at the table about who says what. I have written down a turn of phrase or specific regional sayings—such as when my host in Beebe, Arkansas promised that a local BBQ restaurant was so good that “You’ll want to trim your fingernails so that you wouldn’t chew on them.” But in general I treat the dinner conversation as a sacred space.
Of course, some stories stay with you no matter if you write them down or not. In New York City, for example, we ate our meal at a large cherry wood table that belonged to the host’s grandparents in the apartment passed down from the same woman through the generations. In sharing the story about the place and table, my host revealed that both grandparents had separately escaped Nazi Germany to come here. Her grandfather had evaded capture through a kind of Underground Railroad whose contact was known as “the woman in the red dress,” and her grandmother was somewhat a New York City icon who had collected some 300 Ancient Chinese tomb sculptures. She eventually sold 47 of them to the Walt Disney Company, which has placed them on permanent display at the Epcot Center near Orlando, Florida.
In New Hope, Pennsylvania the other guests and I listened to a gay man who grew up when it was illegal and taboo to have relationships natural to him. To cope, he wrote poetry. He was an electrician by profession, but he was also Jack who knew many other trades. Schooling never did much for him, but the existential hardships he endured when many of us were just discovering school crushes taught him how to pour himself into verse. It had been more than ten years since he had met his current partner, and he had not written a line of poetry since. But when I asked if he remembered any of them, the lines flowed out of him as if he had composed them that morning. They were full of angst and pulled their soul from dark places, and they sounded at great odds with the gregarious man now sitting at the table.
I’m usually the only true stranger at the table, so I know that the stories that guests share benefit the others, the people they know well. As the stranger, I embrace what I call the Transient’s Privilege. I get to ask deeply personal questions without making the other person feel judged. It can be a loaded moment. On the one hand, the person can feel safe knowing that I will not be around to judge her the following day. On the other, her responses typically have a greater impact on the others there who know her better—they, not I, are the intended audience.
In Winston-Salem, North Carolina I watched as someone confessed to her friends that she had grown up in poverty. As an upwardly mobile 30-something and mother living in an upper-middle class housing development, she never imagined that anyone among her group of fairly new friends would have a similar background. Self-conscious about that past, she did not mention it during her story. Several people later, when someone made a point of revealing his childhood in poverty, she asked if she could amend her story. She began to cry and told her friends how reassuring it was to know that others at the table and in her social circle shared a childhood in abject poverty.
Moments of epiphany, about oneself and others, can come among a group of new friends as well as between people who’ve known each other for decades. One of my personal favorite moments occurred in Alexandria, Virginia, when for the first time on this trip I sat with a handful of people I have known since college. Although half of the table had graduated from the United States Naval Academy the same year, due to the nature of our post-college employment we lost touch with one another until recently. I reunited with some classmates that night for the first time since we left the Academy 18 years earlier. We did attend the most recent reunion, we learned, but did not socialize there.
Anyone who graduates from a service academy while in a serious relationship with a civilian must face the inevitable “What do we do now?” One of the guests at the dinner went on to marry his then-girlfriend, who had graduated from another university at the same time. When it was her turn, she talked about the decision to let go of her potential career and follow his.
I practiced my Transient’s Privilege and posed the question: “You were 23 when you got married, after having put aside your own ambitions to follow where his career would move you. What did you know about him that made you think it was the right decision?”
She didn’t pause long before answering. “The only thing I knew for sure about him,” she said, “was that he was a decent man. And that he will always be that.”
I thought that it was a touching response but didn’t pursue further. Other people had questions, and then we moved along the circle of sharing. After the dinner, my college classmate told me that he had never heard his wife say that. It was worth any price of admission, he said, to attend a dinner and hear that from her.
Through the course of the almost 100 dinners and many hundreds of stories therein, I’ve learned that these kinds of epiphanies and magical moments can occur among new friends and old spouses. My theory is that they occur because the rules I set ask us to practice something called generous listening. I’m borrowing the term from the professional interviewer Krista Tippett, who hosts a show on NPR. The second rule of an LMF dinner party—interrupt only to ask questions—ensures that we all listen generously to one another.
The difference between an interview and a discussion, of course, is that the latter is more fluid and can involve many interests, some of them conflicting. But the truth stays constant: generous listening requires patience and the ability of us to be surprised by what we hear. To be surprised, we must suspend our judgment and withhold our arguments, even when we think they must be made. (In this past election year, one could readily find arguments if that’s what one was after. I’ve written a story about the importance of generous listening particularly in these times of political division.) The surprise comes when we disagree in principle with what is said, but we stay open and continue to hear the reasoning, and eventually we get to learn the other person’s motivations and values that determine their stance.
From our parents and education, we have learned the valuable skills in conversation as these: form our own beliefs, listen patiently to others, and voice our opinions to persuade. They are useful skills, to be sure. In my experience with Le Mobile Feast, however, I’ve realized that generous listening—while it demands greater patience and empathy—yields so much more compassion and understanding. And it also brings forth truly wonderful, honest, and revealing stories from those we love.
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Steven Le is a writer who cooks or a cook who writes, depending on who is asking. He is an adventurer who has enjoyed careers in the U.S. Navy, teaching, nonprofit administration, and manufacturing. At the moment, he is traveling the United States with Le Mobile Feast in search of stories to include in a forthcoming book.