On a gusty winter night in Providence, I’m tiptoeing down a corridor of duplex homes. Every inch of the sidewalk is glazed with ice. I find out the hard way. My feet shoot in opposing directions and six bottles of doppelbock clatter onto the street. Scrabbling around on all fours and scooping up the loosed beers, I try not to lose my cool. It’s three minutes until dinner and I haven’t even met my hosts yet.
At first, picking up and moving from Boston to Providence had seemed like a good idea. In Providence, for just $350 a month, you can live in a house built after the Great Depression. People in Providence are approachable and friendly, which is a revelation when you’ve grown up in a state where the unofficial motto is “go fuck ya-self.” Providence excited me. And yet, upon my arrival, I realized that years of Masshole conditioning had left me anxious about meeting new people.
Then I heard about MealSharing.com
Imagine a social network where people meet online – usually for the first time – to organize collaborative dinners. Chicagoan Jay Savsani created the site in 2011, after a trip to Cambodia where he shared supper with a farmer and his family. “It was the highlight of the trip,” Savsani recalls. “We talked about everything from Pol Pot to Michael Jackson. And that’s what Meal Sharing was designed to facilitate: a cultural exchange where people from afar or nearby can connect over something as timeless as food.”
MealSharing.com currently boasts users in more than 425 cities. But who are these users? What kind of person – especially in America – voluntarily allows a stranger into their home for something intimate as dinner? Or better yet, what sort of gonzo guest willingly consumes food prepared by someone whom they’ve just met on the Internet? Isn’t this how people end up on Fox News’ nightly Homicide Highlights compilation?
Maybe, I thought, staring at my laptop screen. But the heart wants what it wants. Within one hour of creating a Meal Sharing profile, I had organized dinner with Amy, a Providence librarian, and her husband, Peter, who owns and manages a local restaurant. The arrangement was simple: they’d cook the meal and I’d bring the beverages. It was disarmingly easy to set up, which might explain why four nights later, standing on Peter and Amy’s doorstep and shivering in the cold, I start to wonder if this is actually going to be fun and natural, or very, very awkward.
The door swings open and Amy, an impish woman with auburn hair quickly ushers me into a living room replete with bookshelves and paintings.
“Did you survive the ice coming out here?” she asks brightly, drawing me into a toasty kitchen. “The streets are a mess.”
“No worries,” I manage. “Important thing is, the beer survived.”
“Hey! I’ve never seen these before,” Amy exclaims, examining one of the bottles. We enter the kitchen where Peter, a handsome guy with a beard is tending a soup pot.
“Hey Miles,” he calls out. “Thanks for the drinks. You ever had a Leaning Chimney?”
Before I can reply, Peter is rummaging through the fridge. He pulls out a tallboy of locally brewed porter and hands it to me. I crack it open and for the next few minutes, Peter, Amy and I lean against the counters shooting the shit. I learn that both of them recently attended a house party that featured a homemade Jacuzzi, fashioned from tarps, water pumps, and a dumpster. More than 24 people crammed themselves into the hot tub before the night was over.
The ease with which she and Peter open up their lives to me is remarkable. After a few sips of beer, I begin launching into a chapter of college involving bongo drums and fake absinthe. But before I can finish, the front door swings open and a second visitor thumps inside, trailing snow behind him.
“I could smell the soup from upstairs!” a burly dude with Wayfarer glasses and a bushy beard cries out with theatrical gusto. This is Joe, Amy and Peter’s friend and neighbor. He’s got a big ceramic bowl in both hands. And suddenly, all of us remember that we’re here to eat.
We sit down at an oak table covered with linen. Amy brings out the first course, steaming bowls of white bean and kale soup with fresh Parmesan. Between each bite, I manage to ask Amy and Peter what compelled them to invite Meal Sharers into their home for dinner.
“The whole idea seemed like a natural extension of things we already do,” Amy says. “Having old and new friends over for dinner…I mean, who doesn’t like that?”
“Did you ever worry that it might feel unnatural?” I ask.
“Not really,” Amy says. “I think when you’re connecting over something universal like a home-cooked meal, it’s easy to skip the small talk and relax.”
Peter darts into the kitchen and re-emerges with a tray of just-baked Pierogi: buttery Polish dumplings stuffed with potato, cheese, and spices. Joe grabs his bowl and offers his contribution to the meal, a winter salad of beets and blood oranges. As the conversation devolves into loud, satisfied chewing and smacking of lips, I tuck in with the kind of abandon usually reserved for meals in my parents’ kitchen.
By my evaluation, Meal Share #1 is a success. But is my experience with Amy and Peter the standard for Meal Sharing? How easily can it be replicated in another city?
To hear MealSharing.com Community Manager Jessica Smith Soto tell it, one of the America-specific challenges the site has encountered is how users define “dinner” and what organizing a group meal actually entails. “For some people, hosting a meal can seem daunting,” she explains. “I don’t think most US users are intimidated by letting someone new into their home so much as physically preparing a meal that seems special and worthy of the occasion: even though most Meal Sharers would probably be thrilled with scrambled eggs.”
There’s also the issue of a familiar buzzword that comes up several times in my conversation with Soto. MealSharing.com is emblematic of the “Sharing Economy,” an emerging and sometimes controversial movement of social networks that bring people together by economizing resources like spare bedrooms, cars, or – in this case – vacant seats at the dinner table. But where an AirBnb user charges guests a flat rate for occupying an extra bed or couch, MealSharing.com members are largely left to determine their own reciprocity arrangement. So how does the site protect hosts from being taken advantage of?
“One new website feature that we’ve just rolled out in Chicago is the “Chip-In” option,” Soto tells me. “Basically, a host can post a meal event and say something like, ‘Hey! I’m serving a three-course Cajun dinner tonight. There are plenty of spots left. All I’m asking for is a $10 donation per guest.’”
While the dynamic of monetizing a shared meal strikes me as slightly more business-like than bringing a homemade salad or bottle of Zinfandel to the table, Meal Sharing still strikes me as more inclusive and friendlier to the average wallet than other Sharing Economy startups. EatWith, a San Francisco-based competitor to Meal Sharing, requires its hosts to apply for membership based on culinary skills, and allows them to create meal events that often carry hefty attendance fees, with a 15% commission going to the site. And with competition like that, you have to wonder, what kind of person does the Sharing Economy cater to and how long can a more egalitarian site like MealSharing.com survive with its original ethics intact?
I decide to set up another Meal Share. And that’s when I run into trouble. Nearly every host in New England declines my requests! Most of them have forgotten about joining Meal Sharing in the first place. Two users explain that they’re too busy for the logistics of hosting dinner. So I do what any New Englander does to escape the aloofness of their homeland: I buy a Chinatown bus ticket and head for New York.
This time, my host is a software developer named Guillermo. He lives in Williamsburg, that illustrious end of Brooklyn where Lena Dunham recently bought a $4.5 million townhouse. The sun is setting as I press the buzzer at his apartment door, a big bottle of local stout in hand. A voice with a strong Spanish accent crackles through the intercom. “Coming down!”
Like Amy, Guillermo is youthful and springy. He leads me up two flights of stairs and we enter a cozy apartment with hardwood floors and a stereo that’s playing sultry guitar music. We might as well be in Barcelona. As I take off my coat, Guillermo reveals what we’ll be eating: a traditional Spanish omelet of eggs, potatoes and onions. It’s already sizzling away in a skillet.
“My father would always make this when I was growing up in Spain,” Guillermo explains, browning the potato slices with a spatula. “It’s the one recipe I’ve really carried with me all these years: quick, easy, and very filling.”
As the omelet takes shape, Guillermo’s friends stream into the apartment. Soon there are six of us crammed in the kitchen, sipping glasses of Malbec and sharing news items from our personal lives. Guillermo’s downstairs neighbor, Mari, hauls out a jar of homemade Kombucha for all of us to sample. Maybe it’s the wine doing its work, but at this point, I stop reminding myself that I’ve only known Guillermo and his friends for 45 minutes.
Dinner takes place in the living room, and it’s a crowd pleaser. Guillermo’s omelet is hot, hearty and packed with protein. With each bite, I’m already thinking about how I could assemble my own version back home. By 9:30 PM, all of us are reclining in our seats, rubbing our stomachs and drinking more wine: it’s that alcoholic afterglow that can stretch far beyond midnight with the right group of people.
“That was great,” I manage, and then add, “Next time any of you are in New England, you should drop me a line. I can cook my mom’s tortilla soup.”
And then it hits me. I want to see these folks again: if not through MealSharing.com, then by more conventional means. For the first time, I feel something warmer than skepticism about the Sharing Economy. Even if MealSharing were to go belly-up in the advance of companies catering to diners with deeper pockets, at least I met some gregarious and interesting humans along the way.
After all, a social network can facilitate connections, but sustaining those connections – until they bloom into a shared friendship – is on the users.
Plus, next time, we can skip the formality of deciding who’s going to pay for what. We’re way past that.