December 20, 2016
I believe that I promised at one point to tell you about my experience with a part of the sharing economy that has become a large part of my life. As you know, I have been hosting guests through the Couchsurfing (CS) website for over three years. This has been a good opportunity to meet people from different countries and cultures. And I definitely have enjoyed the social aspect of it.
Not long after I began hosting guests, there was an invitation on the local (CS) page to enjoy Thai food in a local host’s home on a Sunday evening. This was definitely appealing to me, and I joined up. When I arrived at the upstairs apartment, I found that there were a lot more people than I had expected. Friday (the host – cute name, cute girl) explained that there were a few people from CS, some were from her community garden, some from Mealsharing, a couple of coworkers, etc. I asked her what Mealsharing was, and she started to explain how people signed up on a website to come to meals that were posted. She then stopped and told me to talk to some guy named Jay who was standing next to the sofa conversing with other guests, because evidently he was the person who founded the website.
I have no problem introducing myself to people who have something interesting to share, so I walked over to this young guy in his mid-to-late-twenties, told him my name and that Friday had sent me his way. Jay was very pleasant to talk to, and enthusiastically began to enlighten me on this very cool concept where local home cooks posted information about a meal that they wanted to cook on the website, then waited for other locals to sign up to come eat the meal with them and others who joined. He then warmly invited me to come on the following Thursday to his home, where he was going to be cooking authentic Indian dishes that he was raised on. I readily accepted his offer, and was told that if I wanted to bring a guest, that would be fine.
I asked my friend, Erica, whom I had met on a dance floor in a city park a couple of months before if she would like to join me for some Indian food. We took the bus, even though it was only 12 blocks from my apartment building to Jay’s condo in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. As we approached the building, I double-checked to be sure we had the correct place. This was not lost on Erica, because she expressed surprise that I wasn’t sure of my friend’s address. When I mentioned that I had only just met Jay about four days prior, her face became contorted in horror as her eyes widened to the size of saucers. “What??!! You don’t KNOW this guy?? How do we know that he isn’t going to drug our food, or POISON us??!” I still get a kick out of her reaction when I remember it. I smiled, then calmly pointed out the unlikelihood of that happening, but I offered to abstain from eating so that I would be unaffected and able to assist her if she were to be overcome by our host’s evil intentions.
The food was simple, yet delicious: chana masala, a spicy shredded carrot salad, some naan, and yogurt to temper the heat from the peppers. What I remember most fondly, though, was the fun and interesting conversation that was happening around the table. I really didn’t know these people. I had only briefly met Jay, and known Erica for only a short time. The others were complete strangers. But after joining together to eat and then continue our discussions afterwards for at least another 90 minutes, I felt like I had known them for a while. And Erica didn’t get poisoned. As I recall, she loved the meal.
I soon found other mealshares to attend, and regularly began signing up for them. To help cover the cost of the food and preparation, there is a nominal fee (set by the individual host) that is deducted from your credit card when you join a meal, thus obviating the need to bring cash to the table and making things awkward for all. Simply find a meal that you wish to attend, sign up, and go. I found that this was my favorite option for dining. Because otherwise, I had two choices when it came to eating: I could cook for myself, and it could be great food, or it could be crap, and the conversation would be non-existent. Or, I could go out to eat, pay a little, or pay a lot. The food might be great, or might be mediocre. And my conversation would consist of “Table for one.” “I’ll order the…” “Yes, it’s good, thank you.” “Check please.” And the experience would last anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes. But with mealsharing, I get to go and eat good quality dishes, maybe not fancy, but good. I have great conversation with other people who have differing life experiences to share. And the time that is spent is much more in quantity and quality than when dining alone.
One of the more interesting things that I’ve observed about mealsharing versus dining out is the lack of cellphone activity. I find myself caught between amusement and irritation when I go to a restaurant and witness families, friends, couples on dates, all sitting at the table together, but instead of interacting with the people they are with, are interacting with their electronic devices. Texting, Facebooking (yes, I guess that’s a verb now), or otherwise choosing to be involved with others who are not even there. During a typical mealshare, cellphones come out to take pictures, but are generally set aside as the participants exchange ideas and experiences with each other.
I’ve personally attended over 140 mealshares since I began. I’ve hosted over a dozen myself. Each is a unique experience. I’ve enjoyed authentic Chinese dumplings, Vietnamese pho, German schnitzel, Congo chicken moambe, Mexican tamales, and many, many more. Sometimes the food is as simple as burgers and hot dogs. I personally served up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at one of my own mealshares. (Granted, they were GOOD pb&j) The whole point of the pb&j mealshare was that the menu or featured cuisine takes a back seat to the good times and friendship that the experience offers.
Many of the people that I’ve come to know through mealsharing have become more than occasional dining companions. We get together for other events or activities. I’ve been hiking with Jueun and Huan. I went to a drag show at a gay bar with Cathy and Julia where George was a performer. Tony and Ina took me to a burlesque show. Coco and I went to a movie a couple of weeks ago, and she graciously offered me her couch for my last week here in Chicago as I am technically homeless. Jay frequently hits me up to go to Chinatown for late-night snacks and smoothies.
These are obviously my personal experiences with this exciting and rewarding way to share my life with others in a social network. But Mealsharing is a world-wide website, with home cooks in many countries signed up to host a meal for travelers or locals who ask. I hope to begin hosting meals again myself when I get myself set up in Thailand. If you are interested in becoming a host in your city or town, or just want a good, local, home-cooked meal and conversation when you travel, check out their website at www.mealsharing.com.