The art and science of eating with total strangers


What makes a meal memorable? Is it the critic's rating? The way it was prepared? The one who prepared it? The story behind it? Or the ones with whom you ate it? These were the questions I asked myself after my rather unusual experience a few days ago.

There is no question that eating is a cultural experience. Beyond nourishment, the social connectivity it engenders can be reliably observed. This is why Anthony Bourdain's work, well, worked. He mined this truth with a ladle that could scoop the most hidden of treasures about humans eating together. Even established enemies include meals jointly celebrated in peace talks. So what happens when you invite people who do not know each other to eat together in a rather unlikely place to eat?

Recently, I volunteered to do just that in a museum in Melbourne. A museum worker asked me if I would be willing to be part of an art installation where I would eat a free lunch with 3 other people – all of us strangers to each other. The meal took place in a lone dining table in the museum lobby, with a signage identifying it as an art installation: Untitled (Lunch Box) by Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.

At first, the museum worker opened the stainless steel lunch containers that had Thai food in it: pork satay, green papaya salad, chicken yellow curry, and rice, as specified by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Then she left the 4 of us to dine by ourselves. Rirkrit Tiravanija is known for art that is based around creating spaces for social connections. People around the museum looked at us knowing that we were part of the art installation because of the signage beside our dining table. Some openly examined if there was anything remarkable that we were doing, but would eventually leave smiling, realizing it was just that – strangers eating a great lunch together in a museum lobby.

The conversation opened with each of us sharing our reasons for being part of the art installation. To someone like me, an art installation looks and feels like an experiment at first. It has a specific space where it would happen, it has "materials" (dishes) specified by the artist himself, and it has subjects – in this case, the 4 of us, randomly selected. But here is where it differs. Art will not necessarily note the resulting interactions or non-interactions of the diners. Art will not count how many times the diners looked away from their food towards their fellow diners. Art will not necessarily check if the diners ate more or less than they would have if they dined with friends or family.

If it were a science experiment, researchers would be viewing it from all angles from a CCTV. They would probably check to confirm if the way someone eats would be mimicked by someone else in the same dining table, as this experiment had shown. Surprisingly, we were not given any drinks, not even water, and I was not sure if it was part of the artist's design. But if we were given any, if it were a science experiment, it would have been a chance to confirm if a sip of alcoholic drink from one would elicit a sip of alcoholic drink of the other, as another experiment revealed.

Also, if it were a science experiment, the diners would have been selected so that at some days, there would be members of the opposite sex, as that would be a chance to verify this experiment that showed people eat significantly less when they're dining with the opposite sex. If it were a science experiment, it would have proven this previous study that showed given natural settings for people to be social (such as eating), people will be social even with strangers. 

Eating among humans is inherently social that even our ancestors who belonged to hunter-gathering societies shared their meals among themselves despite them being strangers as well as their potential to be competitive. This finding held true among small-scale foraging groups, which probably would yield some useful insight as to why we would give our last spoonful to a stranger who visits our house but would hesitate to give a surplus in response to a wide call for aid for people in need. 

There is something about our human brains when we eat with others. You don't need science to tell you how enormously pleasurable it is to dine with company you know and love, like friends and family. But getting to know new people also seems easier when you dine with them. Perhaps the rewarding feeling that your brain gives you when you eat helps you to let others into your life more fluidly – at least for that dining moment.

Many moons ago, I learned French. I learned continuously for two years through one-on-one lessons with a French teacher who never failed to always situate our lessons as a meal. Our conversations always involved food – even while driving in the car. She would also cook our meals while teaching me the ingredients and the cooking process in French. I did not learn how to cook, but I learned how to eat. We would go to restaurants and she would have me translate the menu in French. When she would ask me to read a French magazine or newspaper and translate it to English, it would always be the two of us, in a café, having some cake and coffee. That made my learning journey at that time in my life remarkably delightful.

Even in big conferences now, where it is quite a challenge to connect with anyone in particular, organizers make sure that there is a meal that everyone would look forward to having, when you can sit with specific people and engage. This anthropologist thinks that real cultural learning and exploration necessarily involves the sharing of meals. He said that eating with strangers enables you to "build essential intercultural competencies like mindfulness, cognitive and behavioral flexibility, cross-cultural empathy, and a tolerance for ambiguity." There is probably no wall that food cannot melt and break down.

But while world peace cannot yet be had with just world peas, through digital tools, dining with strangers is already happening, with some calling it a "revolution" in social dining. Whether you want to host a dinner or choose a seat in one, there are apps that facilitate these special dining experiences. They are now also part of some special travel services.

Back to the art installation: I observed that the college kid in our group of 4 dominated our conversation. He was the only male in the group. He served each of us, and he led the topics most of the time without asking what we each thought or if we wanted to take the discussions in another direction. He was young, thought he knew it all, and seemed like he had the energy to do it all. I let him be, and I think the other women did, too. He was still unfolding his own path – one that is strewn with dining tables, where he will eat with various strangers in different times and situations in his life. I wonder about the many different directions this art installation has taken since Rirkrit Tiravanija started it in 2012 at New York's MOMA. This particular work of his is called "Untitled," and I think when it comes to eating with strangers, there is no better way to describe it. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at