By Harriet P. Gross
Years ago, my very first class in graduate school ended with an unusual special event. The professors — a husband-and-wife team visiting for a semester from another university — decided to update the old Greek “symposium.”
The word first referred to a social event hallmarked by lots of conversation and exchange of ideas, accompanied by much heavy-duty drinking! Our profs called theirs a “souposium,” and since that wouldn’t have worked in our classroom setting (neither, by the way, would the drinking thing!), our last meeting was in a private home. Mine. I made the soup, a hearty vegetarian brew. The recipe was courtesy of my daughter-in-law, whose maternal grandmother had once been a food writer for a Jewish weekly. Accompanied by good bread, our meal was a success, as so was our final conversation and idea exchange.
All that came back to me with a special glow of remembrance as I took part in the Dallas Dinner Table, a Martin Luther King Day event that brings together small groups of people, pre-mixed to represent a variety of ages, backgrounds, races, religions and sexual orientations, to exchange ideas on one of the most pressing issues of our time — intergroup relations.
Somewhere, there’s a committee that sets all this up. I don’t know who those people are, but I sure wouldn’t want to have their task: I understand there were almost 70 Dallas Dinner Table sites on MLK Day this year, with some volunteer hosts feeding more than one literal table. Each of them had a pre-assigned, balanced contingent of diners as described above, and a facilitator for the important discussion, which had written rules, including “Suspend Judgment and Focus on Learning.”
My “souposium” memory surfaced because the group I attended met in an office building housing a very non-traditional Christian church, and the buffet spread was salad, bread and lots of soup. I could tell the church members were young, idealistic and “green” simply by the menu: The half-dozen crockpots included standard vegetable, Thai, lentil, potato, etc., some marked “vegan,” one marked “gluten-free,” all the rest plain old vegetarian. And there was also a sense of humor in the house; a pot with a dish of white meat slices in front of it had another label: “With chicken — NOT vegetarian!”
But the soup (with or without chicken) was not the meat of the evening. An icebreaker preceded taking our plates to our places (seven participants at each of three tables); everyone got a sheet with an open-ended sentence, and we all went about asking people to fill in the blanks in their own various ways. These “questions” included such current hot topics as recent police headlines, and such enduring old chestnuts as having friends of different backgrounds and reactions to interracial marriages.
The time was 6 to 9:30 p.m., and it flew by before any of us realized. We never introduced ourselves formally, only by the first-name badges we wore, but we all knew each other very well when the soup had been consumed and the evening was over. There was a Chinese girl on my right, a young attorney who mentioned an Irish background to my left, a black woman across from me whose appearance wouldn’t cause anyone to look twice, and a black fellow next to her with lots of corn-rowed hair that would be an attention-getter anywhere. Our facilitator was one of the oldest people at our table; she told about her experiences when, as a young African-American from a tiny Texas town, she started college at SMU.
Dallas Dinner Table began a long time ago, took a break for a while, then resumed again last year in this somewhat more structured form. If you’d like to share your thoughts and learn about those of others, be sure to sign up next year. (Don’t wait if you want the recipe for Boubby Flora’s Vegetable Soup — pareve, unless you add chicken. Just let me know!)