Last night, 15 members and friends of Denton CUUPS gathered for our third symposium: a leisurely evening of food, wine, and conversation. We got the idea from Cara Schulz, who got the idea from the formal dinners of the ancient Greeks. Cara’s symposia have been glamourous white (or gold) tablecloth events, because that’s who Cara is. Ours are a little more relaxed.
The idea is simple. Everybody brings a dish – just sign up in advance, so you don’t end up with four desserts and no main courses. Dishes are served one at a time and portions are small. This isn’t a fill your plate and stuff your face potluck, it’s a long, leisurely dinner.
Before each dish is served, a bottle of wine is opened. The person serving the dish pours a libation to a God, ancestor, or spirit of their choice. We’re not just feeding ourselves, we’re including the Gods, ancestors, and spirits in our meal and in our conversation. Then the wine is poured to the participants. You don’t have to drink the wine – those who can’t or don’t want to drink alcohol aren’t excluded. But the wine really is a conversational enhancement.
Then the person who brought the dish presents a question for discussion. We place no restrictions on the questions that can be asked, but typically they’re of a theological or philosophical nature.
Some of our questions last night asked everyone to answer in turn. Others were more free flowing conversations. While there were no arguments, there were several questions – particularly those involving theology – where we had some significant differences of opinion. I was very happy to see that – it showed there was serious thinking behind the opinions. Nobody’s taking anything as unquestioned truth. It also showed the respect and trust this group is building.
The symposium allows everyone to sample a lot of different foods and a lot of different wines. This is one of the times we embrace the Texas stereotype and do things big. We had plenty of food and wine left over, so nobody went hungry or thirsty because there wasn’t enough of their favorite.
We got started about 7:00 last night with hummus and cheese. The second dessert was done just before midnight.
The obvious logistical challenge is that after a long evening of drinking even small amounts of wine, no one needs to be driving. Our first symposium was held during one of our camping trips, where all anyone had to do was wander back to their tent. Our second and third symposia were held at the home of two of our members who have spare beds, couches, and lots of floor space. Cathy and I brought sleeping bags and pillows.
A few people couldn’t stay overnight – they either didn’t drink at all, or limited themselves to one glass early in the dinner. You might think that with wine flowing freely things would get silly, but they never have. In vino veritas (or in Greek, Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια): in wine there is truth.
15 people is about the upper limit for a symposium. Any more and it’s hard for everyone to get into the flow of conversation, and it’s hard to split a bottle of wine 15 ways. On the other hand, we had a nice variety of questions and opinions. And there was nobody we could have uninvited – on the contrary, there were several more we wish had been there. Such is the reality of even a closed event in a large group.
This isn’t something we do frequently – we have a full calendar of group events, as well as plenty of individual interests and obligations. Plus doing this infrequently makes it a truly special occasion. About once a year is enough.
You can run a symposium as a fancy dinner or more informally, with one master chef or with everyone bringing their favorites, with precise wine pairings or with “hey, this looks good.” Mainly what you need are a group of people who want to relax for a long, slow evening of food, wine, and conversation. Try it – you never know what you’ll learn… and how your community will grow.