Pasta & Politics dinner
Bonding over a meal bridges the red and blue divide. Credit: Rob Raede photo

My wife and I recently decided to conduct an experiment: to find out if people of differing political views could find common ground by making and eating Italian food together.

And without the evening devolving into a linguine fight.

This dinner idea had its origins in a conversation two years ago over breakfast, when I mentioned to my wife that the communication problem between red-leaning and blue-leaning folks seemed to be getting worse, not better, and she gave me “the look.”

The look means that I was close to violating one of our house rules, which states: You cannot complain about something unless you’re already doing something about it.

After a bit of research, I found a way to stay within Raede household guidelines in the form of Braver Angels.

Braver Angels is an organization founded on the idea that it is possible to bring Red- and Blue-leaning people together and have peaceful, meaningful discussions about topics of the day.

From a standing start six years ago Braver Angels now has 89 chapters in 49 states, and continues to grow. And now we have a Braver Angels chapter here in Santa Barbara.

So, we thought, if our goal is bring people together to find common ground, what could be more fundamentally common than eating?

My wife and I have been fortunate to spend some time each year in Italy, and we’ve become friends with an Italian family who owns a cooking school there. Learning from them, we’ve gotten reasonably good at the basics of Italian cooking. We’ve even helped teach there occasionally.

At the suggestion of another Italian friend, we combined our interest in Italian food with our interest in bridging the political divide and the “Red/Blue Italian Cooking Class and Dinner” series was launched.

For the inaugural effort we invited two Red-leaning couples and two Blue-leaning. We didn’t identify who was who in any of the emails, nor when folks arrived.

We simply handed out glasses of wine and aprons, asked everyone to wash their hands and introduce themselves, and got to work making pasta. While the pasta rested (very important) we each took a couple of minutes to share something about ourselves.

Many of us talked about our families and our upbringing: Some had internalized and carried on with what they learned around their childhood dinner tables, and some had completely rejected the family consensus and moved in the other direction.

That few minutes of sharing made the later political conversations somehow calmer and more empathetic. And at the risk of sounding crazy … even fun.

Our guests seemed to enjoy themselves so much that no one wanted to leave, and our dinner lasted more than five hours.

Maybe it was the act of making, cooking and eating food together that broke down barriers. Maybe it was the decent wine.

Or possibly people were simply looking for the right ambiance to share the feelings pent up inside these past few years in which seemingly everything has been politicized.

With permission, we video’d people giving their post dinner thoughts. Some samples:

“When I got the confirmation email I looked at the names, and I didn’t know who was who. And then I thought, it doesn’t really matter does it? We should be able to sit at a table and talk. And we’re doing that.”

“I loved it. The fact that we’re still talking at the end is a major accomplishment.”

“Anytime you’re ready to do this again, I’m willing to discuss politics with you. Anytime.”

Would this work with other communities/other cuisines? Would it work to invite Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to put on aprons and roll up sleeves with Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell? No idea, although that could be entertaining to watch.

More important, would it hurt to try?

Rob Raede

Rob Raede

Rob Raede is a UC Santa Barbara graduate, longtime resident and local musician, and co-founder of the Braver Angels alliance in Santa Barbara. The opinions expressed are his own.