“You have to try the bacon doughnuts.”
One simple line started a conversation that led to five friends and me, seated around a table at Traif in South Williamsburg, stuffing our face with a variety of pork and seafood samplings. Bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed dates. Berkshire pork belly with grapefruit and blackberries. Fourteen different sharing plates came out, one after the other, each one met with a giggle of delight and tasting increasingly delicious as the last.
When we finally came to desert and the much-discussed bacon doughnuts were placed on the table in front of us, everybody glanced around, smiling. They weren’t smiles fueled by the unique treat inches from our mouths, but smiles acknowledging the pure pleasure we’d just shared with each other. The food item that started the whole conversation had arrived, but it became less significant than the experience that it’d led to.
This group of friends and I recently started a dining club, in hopes that it would help us make time to see each other and eat some incredible food in the process. The concept is rather simple. Each month, one person in the group chooses a restaurant and makes a reservation for however many of the nine of us can attend. It can be a place they’ve been before and loved or somewhere they’ve always wanted to try. Somebody else then becomes responsible for choosing a bar in the neighborhood for post-dinner drinks.
It seems basic enough, but the outcome is anything but dull. So far I’ve had the best mac and cheese of my life at Aria, tried pork cheeks for the first time at Traif and will finally get to try Wylie Dufresne’s cooking when we go to wd-50 next month. Yet, while the food experiences have been great, it’s the ability to remain constantly connected to friends in reality and not through some form of social media or messaging that really drives the idea. We get a chance to see each other face-to-face, knock a few drinks back and let the hours pass by without checking phones or making calls. It’s something that I’ve grown increasingly thankful for over the past couple months.
Working at an international school, I’ve come to realize that the diminishing amount of face-to-face contact might be more of an American conundrum than I initially thought. Cramming lunch into 20 minutes as you sit over a computer, staying in the office past dinner and engaging in social interaction almost solely via text are common New York realities that don’t exist as much in other places. The French teachers at my school tell stories of regular three-hour long dinners where friends and family relax over bottles of wine and good food. Meanwhile, there are months where I can no longer remember what some of my friends’ voices sound like because it’s been so long since I’ve heard them.
The inability to give ourselves time to just be is part of New York’s allure, but it’s also a major part of what can break people down. As my friends and I enter our late twenties, and try to do everything possible to either start our careers or advance them to a place where we feel comfortable about the vague, ever-advancing concept of “settling down,” I’ve noticed that the promises of hanging out tend to get more frequent. You never have to promise to see somebody when you know you’re going to. They only roll in when the reality might not allow for it. The truth of this stage in life is that we’re entering a phase where friendships and personal well-being often take a backseat to professional accomplishments and security.
Yet, there are only so many parts of a friendship that can be replicated over some form of technology. At some point, there is simply nothing that beats seeing that person in the flesh, watching them react to your stories and allowing yourself the time to hear theirs. This has become the true beauty of these dinners.
As the night crawls forward, we remember what it feels like to treat ourselves to new experiences, but do so in the presence of people we care about. Just like traveling to a new city, there is something fulfilling about being able to turn to the person next to you, who just experienced the same thing, and share it with them.
Knowing that every month I’m going to see new places in the city, with people I care about, creates a non-stressful routine that helps settle me amidst whatever chaos might be rising. I know that, regardless of what else is going on, I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with my friends and either let them share in my joy or have them help me fend off the breakdown. There’s nothing more comforting than good food and good company. It’s a beacon in the storm that is growing up.
My turn to choose is coming next. I’m not sure yet where we’re going to go, but I know that when the night ends I’m going to be full, tipsy and incredibly happy.