The Beet Street Blog

Strangers + Eggplant Parmigiana = Community

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“You have to risk going too far to discover just how far you can really go.”
T.S. Eliot

If you had the day off on Memorial Day, you may have gathered with family and friends.  All over, people came together to mark the day or celebrate graduations, and be together.

This holiday, my family found that even rain can not completely dampen the fun of combining food, friends, and singing together!  Sometimes, I think it’s fun to try and remember how I became friends with someone.  Not just remembering meeting them, but trying to define when our relationship changed from strangers to friends.  There is an invisible line that gets crossed–it might take time to reach that point, but it can also happen quickly.  Lately, I’ve talked to a number of people about making connections in a new community.  In an electronic discussion last week, one member asked, “How do you feel about having dinner with a stranger?” Mark Shouldice of Toronto did exactly that—not by chance, but by identifying Franke James (author, artist, and photographer) as someone he thought would be interesting to get to know.

Shouldice came across James’ website and came up with a creative solution for a Christmas present by requesting her company as a gift—James was a complete stranger!  (You can read the play by play of how the dinner came about at Franke James’ website.)  Shouldice, a 4/5 grade Toronto teacher, arranged the gift of dinner and conversation for his partner.  They had discussed the power of conversations with strangers and how people are more likely to divulge things when they connect as strangers.  Shouldice believes that a conversation with a stranger erases the potential pressure that something you say will be held against you in the future!

When Shouldice emailed James, he explained that he was interested in her work and offered to donate $200 to a charity of her choice in exchange for hosting him and a guest for dinner.  Although James’s initial reaction to the email was to question if it was a joke, she liked how the letter was written and ultimately decided it was an interesting idea (she also Googled Shouldice’s name to try and find out a little about him.) The dinner took place on January 24, 2009 (eggplant Parmigiana, pasta, arugula and spinach “Greek” salad, snow peas, carrots, and apple pie with ice cream).

Shouldice admits that at first, he was a little concerned about keeping the conversation going, but reports after dinner reveal that discussion flowed easily.  In fact, by the end of the evening, the participants reported that the whole situation felt completely normal!  James, for her part, inquisitively agreed to the dinner, but now realizes that the format has fundraising potential for community groups and charities.  So…would you make dinner for a stranger, in exchange for a donation to charity?

Shouldice and James’ adventure illustrates how one idea can lead to another.  In an action plan for the Entrepreneurship Forum of New England, Robert Leaver, discusses how this risktaking is part of creative community:
At the top of the list: creation of a vibrant, self-nourishing community of entrepreneurs.  These are the ones who assume the risk without knowing where all the resources will come from, or even all the bends in the road.  These are the ones for whom a passionate calling and innovation are like food and drink.  These are the ones who are constantly building the next way—whether they’re running a startup tech firm, leading an established company, or growing a community.  These are the ones for who[m] risk and failure is second nature.

If you aren’t ready to invite yourself to dinner, perhaps you can start small by doing something you think you would “never” do.  There are so many events, performances, and places to explore in and around Fort Collins.  You can hear Laurie Anderson, see an independent film at the Lyric Cinema, visit a thought provoking exhibition, or even help an artist create a horse sculpture!  Check out to see what else can challenge you!

If you keep on going, you’ll always get somewhere!

Thank you to Robyn Gallagher for the photo and to Franke James for her great illustrations!

Deborah Lombard

2 Responses to 'Strangers + Eggplant Parmigiana = Community'

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  1. Deborah,

    Glad you enjoyed! It was a lot of fun to do — and had many benefits. Thanks for sharing the Dinner with a Stranger idea with your readers.

    David Suzuki (a famous Canadian environmentalist) “drew inspiration from Dinner with a Stranger” in his Living Room Challenge. []



    Franke James

    29 May 09 at 1:25 pm

  2. Franke,
    It’s great to hear from you! We’re talking about your experience in Fort Collins, and will watch to see what happens next! Your illustrations are great, and I’ll check your website to see more in the future. Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences there.
    Take care,

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