Jordan Feeley examines the relationship between socializing and eating out and how such an act can be representative of a nation’s societal, political and economic issues.
At the end of 2021, the results of Bord Bia’s Irish Foodservice Mark Insights Report indicated that 73% of people listed ‘eating out’ as their most missed social activity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether it be the simplicities of sincere conversation in a quaint café, the buzz of experimenting with the menu of a newly discovered restaurant – or the unbeatable taste of your go-to takeaway after an endless night on the dancefloor, social eating has become a crucial aspect of people’s lives, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world.
The concept of eating out has provided an opportunity to explore cultures, build relationships, discover passions and of course, expand our taste buds from instant ramen and frozen pizzas (which still, and always will, hold a place in my heart). However, it is through embedding ourselves in this tradition that we have created a routine and, in some sense, a necessity to combine eating with socialisation.
In many instances, social eating is a commonality. The idea of consuming food is an act which we all share as a necessity to survive. Along with that, individuals have passions for certain foods and detest others. We all have experiences with food, from embarrassing cooking episodes to nostalgic childhood meals to favorite places to grab a quick bite – food offers simple conversation, a means to get to know one’s personality. Consequently, eating out becomes an idealistic option for bonding. In some sense, just as we snack whilst binging the newest Netflix hit, this may be another form of routine. The traditional association between eating and getting to know someone has been universal across generations. It’s simple, straightforward. It’s comfortable.
For Ireland, eating has become a fundamental part of the nation’s culture. From the warm nostalgia behind a roast dinner, the joy of turning Tayto into a sandwich filler, or the gorgeous hangover cure that is a breakfast roll, eating is not merely a mundane must for the country, but rather a source of pride.
Yet, as of the summer of 2022, Ireland is the second most obese country in Europe. In 2016, the then-Minister of Health, Simon Harris, instigated the ‘Healthy Weight for Ireland’ campaign which was initiated after research found that there is still considerable room for improvement in the Irish diet. Despite the plan, the country still has an obesity problem seven years later. Ireland’s relationship with obesity is a complex issue which cannot be wholly blamed on the pride or commonality for food, nor solved by simply taxing unhealthy products or regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.
For Professor C. Peter Herman at the University of Toronto, the combination of socializing and eating can explain a rise in obesity as whilst people tend to overeat with friends, “those meals are not particularly diet-friendly”. Yet, in a society where healthy eating can be significantly more expensive than fast food, it is oftentimes for some, a financially responsible decision to choose less healthy options. Along with Ireland’s obesity rating, the Central Statistics Office has also rated Irish food prices as being the second most expensive in the Eurozone as of June 2022. This, combined with the intensifying housing crisis across the country, leaves individuals to adapt to cheaper eating options, which are frequently unhealthy.
Additionally, for some, eating can be a source of comfort. An issue oftentimes unconsidered when blaring statistics and unnerving statements regarding obesity, this comfort may become a form of escapism and thus can be explainable by deeper psychological issues. Professor Brendan Kelly from the school of medicine at Trinity College Dublin has observed that since the pandemic, there has been an increase in “eating disorders and anorexia nervosa” which has, in recent months, led to more “young people seeking help for what has been an under-recognised condition”. Whilst this is a fundamental angle to consider when discussing the obesity statistics of Ireland, it is also one to recognise when analysing the concept of social eating. For many, eating out is a daily, oftentimes an unconscious act. For others it is an event which may harness anxieties, concerns and doubt. Thus, whilst social eating for some may be a celebration, for others it can become an unforgiving battle.
Living in rural Ireland for the majority of my childhood and adolescent years, jumping from one local chipper to the next was a fantastic method of beating senseless boredom. Gathering in a small booth, sharing large milkshakes, exploiting daily meal deals by going back multiple times a day - it was something to do when there wasn’t anything else to do. The nearest cinema was a drive away, holidays were seldom and a group could only spend so long kicking a football off a wall. This was, of course, the days before we discovered the magic of drinking in fields, which was eventually, in itself, another method of escaping boredom. And so, social eating became the go-to. Would we have spent as much time in food joints if there were more facilities for the youth? Who knows, probably not. But if there is one thing for certain – although it was the backdrop for some of my greatest childhood memories, we consistently complained about the town being a time capsule – and in many ways, it still is.
Ultimately, social eating is a profound aspect of many daily lives across the country. It is a means of bonding, comfort and escape. While some have attached the popularity of eating out to the nation’s obesity issues, the act of social eating is more than simply going out for a meal, but rather an event which can take considerable economic, psychological and societal consideration. It is different for each individual and the sooner we become conscious of this, the easier it will be to handle not only the issue of obesity, but of food prices, under-recognised mental illnesses and a lack of facilities for youth across the country. Although eating out may be considered a daily, unconscious activity – it can also be representative, and a source of, a nation’s deepest societal, political and economic matters.