Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman


The above photograph (by Donna Turner Ruhlman) is of family meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The below essay was originally published by Finesse, Thomas Keller’s magazine, in an issue that explores the notion of community. In light of the brouhaha begun last week over a study arguing that the family meal is a romantic ideal rather than a simply a good idea, an elite foodie construct that merely makes overstressed middle class moms feel guilty, I’m posting it here. On re-reading, it may seem a bit over the top. But then …?


Is “Community” Important?

Community. How nice. Hippies bagging granola in co-ops. Neighbors spending an afternoon weeding a communal garden filled with tomatoes and basil, bell peppers and a couple of bean plants. Isn’t that special? How Berkeley! Let’s make it the theme of a magazine!

I write to say that community is so far beyond a good thing, so far removed from the examples above, that to fail to understand what community actually means endangers humanity.

For “community,” per se, is neither good nor bad (the Nazis were a community, don’t forget). Rather, community is a lever so powerful that we fail to recognize it as such at our peril. It is so powerful, in fact, that it is arguably what allowed Homo sapiens to flourish on earth as no other species has. And to ignore or belittle community is to put humanity at risk, never more so than now when all peoples face unprecedented perils and even greater opportunities.

This country became food obsessed because for decades we took food for granted—until that food started making our country sick. And when something you take for granted, something you need to survive, starts making you sick, it’s pretty much all you can think about (try going without air for a few minutes if you doubt me). This underlies so much of the current food information and obsession we’ve been experiencing for many years now, the so-called food revolution. (And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.)

But food, like community, is not simply important to our survival, like, say, water. Food is arguably the primary reason human communities formed in the first place, 200,000 years ago, creating a species that would evolve to build the pyramids, write the literature of ancient Greece, create the art of the Renaissance, establish American democracy, and also has prevented, so far, the prevailing of murderous dictators and nuclear holocaust.

In his book, Catching Fire, Harvard anthropological biologist Richard Wrangham writes that for hundreds of millennia, all mammals ate raw food. In the ape world, mammals had to sit for six to eight solitary hours chewing up vegetation in order to get enough calories to be healthy. But at some point, our hominid forebears started cooking food and everything changed. Cooking food gave our ancestors enormous amounts of calories in no time at all. Suddenly flooded with calories, our calorie-hungry brain grew large. This calorie-rich food made us uncommonly healthy and allowed our genes to spread. It changed our bodies (smaller jaws, smaller guts). And it changed our temperaments—we had to cooperate with one another.

The latter impact is critical to examine. Cooking took work (still does, a good thing!). Someone had to go out and hunt animals. Others had to stay at home and protect the food supply and offspring (and cook the tubers and vegetables in the event the good-for-nothing men came back without any woolly mammoth to roast). If we wanted to take advantage of cooked food (that is, if we wanted to continue to grow smarter and healthier and spread our genes) we had to work together. Only by forming communities and working together could we realize the phenomenal advantages of cooked food. It also allowed us to protect one another and keep our families healthy and safe in a dangerous world. We shared duties, watched other’s kids, and benefited from the protection and help of others.

Furthermore, we were not passing 40 or 50 pounds of plants past our larynx, so it’s possible that cooked food allowed for the evolution of more refined vocal chords, which allowed for the development of language, that primary tool for strengthening community and cooperation.

It can’t be proven why Homo sapiens suddenly flourished 200,000 years ago. But the earth is home to more than five million species of mammals. There were at one time 16 species of mammals that walked upright. Humans are the only one of them to survive. We remain the only animal that cooks its food (no human community has survived on raw food alone). We, the cooking animal, not only flourished but became arguably the most successful species in the history of the planet.

Because, thanks to cooking, we formed the most cohesive and effective communities of any other mammal. Only by joining forces could we compete for scarce resources and difficult-to-attain food, protect one another from competing species, and raise offspring healthy enough to produce healthy offspring of their own.

So it seems to me rather prescient that a magazine that came to be because of the success of a small group of restaurants, one of which is explicitly devoted to family-meal service, and all of which are devoted to cooking and serving excellent food, has chosen to focus on community. Far more than some Kumbaya theme about working together, the touchy-feely, share-and-share-alike ethos that talk of community can engender when taken for granted, the idea and power of community is something we must acknowledge as a fundamental building block of our species, one brought about at first by our recognizing the power of cooked food, and then by the recognition that in maintaining strong communities, in all their forms, lies the health of our species.

There has never been a time when recognizing this fact has been more important. We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity, but also extraordinary peril. The litany of dangers is daily conversation—rising temperatures and rising oceans; population growth so rapid that famine is a danger for increasing numbers; dictators still threaten not only their own citizens, but the globe, and religious fanatics terrorize and kill innocent people. We need only look to the United States Congress to see what happens when a community does not work together—it stagnates.

During the past decade we’ve begun to appreciate the fundamental importance of food, how we grow and distribute and consume it, to our lives. It is critical, then, to recognize the fundamental importance of what comes naturally out of that food, what came out of it 200,000 years ago, and what comes out of it today: working together, cooperation, and the forming of cohesive communities. Our survival depends on this.

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© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


11 Wonderful responses to “Community”

  • Dan in WNY


    Definitely not too over-the-top. You may be largely preaching to the converted here, but that raises the question: What about everybody else?

    i’m sure your audience is doing better than ever at feeding their families well with less and less fast food and manufactured food. But what about beyond that one community that’s closest to us?

    At a minimum, we need to consistently support the purveyors of simple, sustainable, ethically-raised food products (e.g. the CSA).

    I’ve been wondering when to weigh in, given that I touched off this part of the firestorm by sending you the Slate piece last week.

  • Jon Ziarnik

    You are not over the top here. First and foremost, a great restaurant nurtures. To truly do that (as opposed to just feed, for example) a restaurant must nurture it’s own. You can’t make the customer #1 if the employees are #2. That’s also true in my 30+ years as a business consultant to organizations in just the same way. Your customer service quality is directly tied to your treatment of employees.
    Regarding the need to change, I am a hard core bird hunter. My dogs and I roam all over the central US from October to March. I have seen the changes in land use practices over the years. The changes have been relatively gradual, and difficult to connect a lot of disparate dots until I read Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was a “holy shit” moment for me. Last year I had to largely rebuild my hunting territory because what I had built over 45 years had disappeared in a tidal wave of industrial agriculture, fracking, wind turbines and water table draw down. For example, 10 years ago, I had access to well over 100,000 acres of land between Amarillo and the Oklahoma boarder. Last year it was close to zero. Gone to drilling and fracking. North Dakota is gone to hunting north of Dickinson due to the same things. Eastern Colorado, Neb and KS, due to industrial agriculture. Game birds are edge species (by the way as are many fish). The edges in those states are largely gone to the plow and the center pivot.
    You’re not over the top on any of this so far.

  • Abra

    “We, the cooking animal”……………I love this piece, Michael. Putting cooking at the very center of human evolution really resonates with me.

  • Bob

    I’ve agreed with the cooking = community ever since I read Richard Wrangham’s ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human’

  • Calum

    Yes, cooking is a unique characteristic of humans. When we gather as a community to cook, share and eat, it leads to our second unique characteristic – we tell stories. Reheating precooked food by yourself abnegates all of this.

  • Tags

    “Community” starts withe the prefix “com,” which means “with, together, and jointly.” I have to laugh when I hear someone say that she never compromises, because compromise equals defeat. Such a person will stop at a stop sign, unwittingly compromising her desire to proceed unabated, and will compromise again for another who arrives at the intersection before her. Both “community” and “compromise” share the same prefix, and they cannot be separated.

  • kevin slattery

    My first impression upon seeing the photo was Vermeer. The light is wonderful.

  • Carri

    Now the question is how do we take action to strengthen our community and use that power for the good of all and not just a select few? Food is the key to making our world better. Donate to the food pantry, get involved with local food supply issues, take a meal to the housebound lady down the street. Feed your community and it will grow!

  • Michelle

    I am going to play devil’s advocate here and just say that cooking for a family on a daily basis, in certain parts of the country, on a budget, is hard. Especially when you have a full-time job. Actually the cooking itself is not that difficult … it’s the shopping, driving, paying for it, and eventual cleaning up that’s hard. Cooking is the easy part. On average, I shop for food 2-3 times per week. I drive miles out of my way to shop at the farmer’s market and stores like Whole Foods. Cooking and healthy eating is a lifestyle. And no matter what they say, it DOES cost more. Yes, you can get a giant bag of beans for pennies and plenty of other healthy options … but if you want some spices, fresh organic vegetables, dairy products, condiments … be prepared to pay. Let’s just face it, our commute times, our work week, our kids extra curricular activities, have all increased. I work retail and was forced to work 31 days in a row last holiday season. And I absolutely cannot abide fast food. So I was grocery shopping at the oddest hours – early in the morning, late at night. I was exhausted. And then came home and put plenty of meals in the slow cooker. And things were going pretty smoothly until the dishes started piling up. Oh, yes, one would think that’s when the trusty husband and kids would chip in. But let’s face it, after fifty hour work weeks and long commutes, all we really want to do is come home, stuff some pizza in our faces and drink half a bottle of wine and call it a day. I have cooked every single night for pretty much eight years in a row now. And I must say, it’s been rewarding. It’s been fun. But there’s a wee little part of me, the exhausted part, that says “F” it. I could have done so much with my time. I could have read Tolstoy! But no, we had to get on this healthy food bandwagon. Damn that Michael Pollan!! 🙂 (Please disregard that, I really do love him.) But it has been hard. And to all those people who compare cooking to June Cleaver, well they’ve been watching the wrong sitcom. Remember Mr. French? Uncle Charlie? Alice and Aunte Bee? Why the hell do you think they hired those folks? Because they needed someone to cook and do the dishes. There are nights when I would give my eye teeth for a healthy, hot, home cooked meal that I did not have to prepare myself. All I can say is, where is Alice when you need her?

  • J.T.

    Thanks, Ruhlman, I love your blog, but I can’t handle anything, literally anything, related to Thomas Keller anymore. He basically laid his cards on the table in regards to how he feels about his role as an environmental steward and it makes me feel sick inside to listen to him. Let’s revisit his wonderful quote. “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Wow! I’m certainly no saint when it comes to creating carbon emissions, but that is just so massively arrogant of a statement. Please distance yourself from this douche bag. Love you still anyways.