Chocolate, Chili, and Civility
Originally published in quality newspapers the week of January 16, 2011
Nancy met Paul while they were both in college and after a short courtship they were married in 1962. She spent a good portion of that decade pregnant, having her five children over the course of six years. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom during those early years of their family’s life and did a lot of volunteer work in her community. Today, she and Paul have six grandchildren who call them Mimi and Pop. Nancy is a self-confessed chocoholic and her recipe for chocolate mousse is a favorite of family and friends. She entered it into a March of Dimes recipe contest to help raise money for the charity, and it is, in fact, an award-winning dessert.
John was born in Cincinnati, one of 12 children in his German-Irish family. His grandfather owned a neighborhood cafe that served cold beer and hearty fare, and John earned his first paycheck mopping the floors there. Although it took him seven years, John put himself through college by working as a janitor. Over the years, he has risen to the highest ranks of his profession, a long way from mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms. His work keeps him away quite a bit but when he’s home one of his regular stops is to his favorite Cincinnati-style chili joints.
Nancy and John now work together…sort of. They are both members of the U.S. Congress. Nancy’s last name is Pelosi and John’s is Boehner and they have just recently switched roles, with Rep. Boehner as the new Speaker of the House and Rep. Pelosi as the new Minority Leader. I’m not sure what the personal relationship is between these two individuals but they are symbols of our two-party system of government in the United States, a system that’s civility, or lack thereof, is currently being questioned.
The tragic shooting in Arizona will likely prove to be completely unrelated to any heated political rhetoric, but the event did seem to heighten the conversation about how we should behave toward one another when it comes to civic affairs and how our political discourse at all levels – federal, state, and local could take on a different tone.
I’ve got some ideas about how we might be able to make that happen. How about a Capital Hill pitch in, potluck, covered dish supper, dinner on the grounds, or whatever it’s called in your neck of the woods? What if Nancy made her award-winning chocolate mousse and John brought a big ol’ Crockpot of Cincinnati chili? What if, just for an hour or so, all talk of politics was replaced by the swapping of recipes and the bragging of grandparents? Could something so simple begin to change the tone in Washington?
Janet Flammang, a professor of political science and the author of A Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics. and Civil Society, tells us that the table is one of the first places where we learn about being civil to one another. She notes that, “It is at the temporary democracy of the table that children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civility—sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending—and it is these habits that are lost when we eat alone and on the run."
Maybe what is good for children would be good for Congress and good for the rest of us as well. Maybe regular breaking of bread together would help us reacquire those habits of civility. It just might be worth a try.