EATING together is the cement of civilised society.
You must come for supper is code for we’d like to repay your kindness/let you into our confidence/become closer friends with you.
But like most good things that reinforce comradeship, a meal can also be the pair of half-bricks that can clatter good relations to pulp.
A meal invitation can turn on you like a pit bull on acid. It must be handled with extreme caution.
Mike Leigh recognised this with his cringe-making play Abigail’s Party in 1977.
It was cringe-making because he spotted the huge potential for disaster when middle-class pretensions clashed with a viciously unhappy marriage.
If you don’t know the play, imagine two suburban couples making small talk over the Beaujolais and silverskin onions, cheese and pineapple cubes on cocktail sticks.
The hostess, Abigail, gets drunk and starts in on her husband while the guests watch helplessly.
In search of the most basic of human behaviour I always boringly return to when we lived in caves and were taking our first hesitant steps as a species towards co-operative living.
What better way to get to know Ug and his Ugess than by inviting them round to the campfire and feeding them some freshly roasted gralloch?
We had just discovered fire, a precious commodity, and were within a few thousand years of inventing the oven, which was when entertaining the neighbours really took off.
There is a well-tried way of putting one’s elbow in the water of socialising, before we go the whole hog and commit to inviting Fred and Cynthia round for drinkies and a bite to eat.
Cafes, pubs and restaurants are neutral ground. It’s friendly to eat together in one of these places, but the hand goes up: thus far, no further.
If we get on well at someone else’s table, we have the option of taking it a step further, and meeting at your/my home.
We also have the advantage of gaining an inkling of what people like without committing to the embarrassment and expense of an Epicurean faux pas: red wine or white, veggie or red meat, Tex Mex or fusion.
It not just a gesture of hospitality. Would that human behaviour were that simple.
It can so easily become a Who’s The Best Cook contest.
“Last time we went to the Avisons, they gave us ghormeh sabzi. We’ve invited them back for a big helping of kugelisaka. That’ll teach them to go Persian on us. And they’d better eat it all up.”
Translation: ghormeh sabzi is an Iranian lamb stew and vegetables. Kugelisaka is Lithuania’s national dish, a grated potato pudding. In this column, we specialise in culinary esoterica.
If it’s not culinary expertise we want to display, it could be that we wish to provoke envy over the furnishings or decor.
We might want you to drool over our new and incredibly expensive leather sofa. Not literally, of course – that would be awfully bad manners on everybody’s part.
We might be super-bores who are just so full of ourselves that we want a captive audience for four hours.
While our favourite music, Slavonic nose-bassoon, drones on in the background, we drone on in the foreground about our grandchildren (done that), my stamp albums and Pip’s collection of macrame animals.
Oh, all right. I lied about all that. I haven’t played nose-bassoon, Slavonic or Moldovian, since my student days, I gave up stamp collecting at least last week, and Pip’s macrame animals are nothing to write home about.
The toothpick and fuse-wire ones, now they’re really interesting ...