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When I was in graduate school there arose some issues with administration that were affecting the student body. One day, one of my professors chose to use our class as a forum to discuss these events. His plan was to give the students an opportunity to express their concerns, and process our feelings and possible responses. At the onset of the class, before divulging his agenda, he began distributing bagels and cream cheese. A few of the students perceived an ulterior motive and asked him why we were commencing our class on such an informal and socially gracious note. He then revealed his intent of affording us a venue to discuss the thorny issues that were brewing at the school.
We were all very grateful that he cared and wanted to help us deal with our apprehensions. His approach was memorable and always stayed with me. Actually it was rather shrewd. By offering food he changed the entire dynamic of the situation. Instead of it being the usual, straightforward classroom setting, with the standard boundaries of teacher and pupils, the context was transformed into a warmer and more welcoming environment. At that moment he was no longer the distant authority figure instructing the subordinate students. He transcended his role from professor to advocate; loosening the social boundaries via food. As I've written before, food is a vehicle for expressing nurturance and compassion. Thus, he not only created a new interpersonal medium, he conveyed the message that he was genuinely concerned. In a word, he engendered trust.
Well it worked like a charm. Various students did open up about their feelings and we had a very productive dialogue. While almost all of my teachers were superlative educators, it is this particular professor who touched me the most.
Today, many years later and far more savvy culinarily speaking, I ponder this scenario with greater depth. At the time I loosely linked his bagels with the psycho-social effect. Now as a chef and food writer I reflect more profoundly on that experience and its implications for food in our interpersonal world.
What my professor did is by no means novel. Since time immemorial man has been greasing the wheels of social interaction with food and drink.
Diplomatic functions, business lunches, romantic dates, and sales pitches of every kind almost always employ some form of food or drink. It's so common and universal a practice that we take it for granted. In fact, even when we "know" we're being cajoled with comestibles, the persuasive power is such that it still has the intended effect.
In my professor's case, his intention was not manipulative in that he hoped to sell us a time share or exhort us to reduce our nuclear stockpile. Rather, he used the food, as stated, to break the ice, dissolve the interpersonal boundaries, create trust and make us feel comfortable. It was done for our benefit not his. Nevertheless, be it more clandestine or benevolent motives, food and drink is a powerful social lubricant.
However, there are limitations. If the relationship is beset by inordinate animosity it can backfire. Allow me to indulge in a fictional analogy. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew members are shanghaied by the sinister alien known as "Q" and forced to participate in one of his mind games. Q initiates the ploy by giving everyone a drink. Worf, an imperious Klingon, impertinently pours his drink on the ground and cites an old Klingon maxim: "Drink not with thine enemy." Q's attempt to inveigle the crew into his web with beverages only serves to sharpen the schism between them.
As stated, even when cognizant that we're being plied with food and drink, it can still have an enticing effect. We know the pizza and soda the sales representative brought to the meeting is designed to beguile us, but we have a slice anyway. But when the offering comes from an enemy, or someone we have a highly antagonistic relationship with, then all bets are off. Now the food isn't viewed as a nice gesture or even an enticement, but a weapon; a serpentine and perfidious tool to facilitate malevolent intention. Like the countless gangster movie scenes where the victim is sharing a meal or a drink with his killers before being rubbed out. Obviously the sustenance puts the pigeon at ease, rendering it easier for his slayers to strike.
But thankfully, most of life's interactions are not that oppositional. More often than not, food and drink pave the way for innumerable human interactions. If you want to woo your potential love interest, ingratiate yourself with the in-laws, or seal the deal with your potential new customer, bring, buy, or make food. But if you're toe to toe with your nemesis, then just save your time and money. Or if your arch-enemy is offering you a drink, then allow me to quote another Star Trek adage: "Beware of Romulans bearing gifts."