It’s June of 2019, and I’m sitting in the backyard of my hostel in Girona, Spain, reading a book, when a man comes out of the kitchen holding a bowl of glistening red cherries, a bottle of vermouth and two mismatched glasses. “You need this,” he says as he sits down. This is my first time meeting this man, but he pours us both glasses of vermouth and offers me some of the cherries. I accept. As we start chatting and getting slightly tipsy, more guests arrive at the hostel, burdened by bulging backpacks and hungry for company and wine. We open seemingly endless €2 bottles, and someone blessedly lines the table with olives, a salad and a simple pasta dish.
At 5 p.m. when I sat down with my book, I knew nobody in Spain, and by 10 p.m., I am hearing achingly intimate stories of divorce, of mental health struggles, of life-defining decisions. Despite having a close social circle at home, these stories, passed across the table along with the bottle of vermouth, feel more intimate and honest than most I’ve had with friends who have been in my life for over ten years.
If that had been my only experience in a hostel kitchen, I would have written it off as good luck, a chance meeting of compatible souls who just happened to get lucky, twisted together in time and space for a moment like the strands of spaghetti we sloppily ate to stave off our hunger and hangovers. But it wasn’t, and this is a scene that’s played out for me time and time again at hostels: strangers meeting in an ill-equipped kitchen, wine or beer flowing, soon spilling our life’s secrets over plates of hastily prepared pasta or makeshift curry.
There’s plenty of evidence that supports the idea that hostel kitchens are spaces for building community, connection and commensality. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to host free breakfasts and dinners specifically to create a sense of community. And since many solo travelers and young people choose hostels for their accommodations, it makes sense that guests would be interested in both making friends and saving money by eating or preparing food in the kitchen. The resulting friendships that are formed around these tables are intense—experiencing a new country together for a short period of time encourages a kind of radical openness I’ve never experienced elsewhere: a closeness that comes not from extended years of shared history but from the knowledge that these people will only be in your life for a short time, so you have little to lose by being fully and completely yourself.
But it wasn’t until after my trip had ended, I was living on my own and COVID struck that I truly realized the importance of these meals and the connections that sprang from them. Though I’ve always been, on the whole, introverted and generally don’t mind spending time alone, I soon found that I desperately missed sitting around a table with a group of strangers of all ages sharing a cheap bottle of wine and finding, despite coming from radically different parts of the world, that we had all encountered similar emotions and experiences. While traveling in general presents these opportunities more than “normal” life does, the hostel kitchen seems like an especially important space—that same energy is rarely found on a train or at a hotel bar.
We may like to think of our nutritional and social needs as largely separate, but if going from hostel living to a pandemic taught me anything, it’s that these two facets of life are, or at least should be, intricately intertwined. The heartiest meal eaten alone day after day doesn’t feel nearly as nourishing as one that’s significantly less luxe but eaten in the company of others—especially others who are willing to go beyond the small talk. Research indicates that eating in the presence of others is important for feelings of emotional wellbeing, and there’s also evidence that commensality encourages us to make healthier choices.
Sadly, most of us do not live in a culture where eating with others is encouraged. As of 2019, 28% of U.S. adults lived on their own, which points to a lot of solo meals. COVID has made it more difficult to gather with friends and family members to meet at restaurants. And even as we tentatively start going out more, we’re stilled faced with the fact that even meals at restaurants are relatively isolated—inviting a stranger to sit down at the table with you would generally be considered a faux pas. Even many restaurants that used to have communal seating have adjusted their spaces to allow for more social distancing. Social distance is indeed the result.
At a time when the world seems so stressful and so uncertain, the hostel kitchen serves as a model of a different kind of sustenance. We’re not hungry for the most luxurious menus or over-the-top cocktails. What we’re craving is simultaneously free and invaluable. Communal dining—communal dining with strangers, no less—could be a balm to so much of what ails us: isolation, loneliness, hunger, both literal and figurative.
Clearly, making a reservation on Booking.com and flying to Spain isn’t the answer to fixing our broken mealtime structure, and hostels themselves are an imperfect model: Despite being mostly budget accommodations, they are still rife with privilege, ageism and exclusivity. But for me, the hostel kitchen stands as a symbol of what sustenance should be. It encourages us to look past our own plates and into the eyes of those across the table from us and asks us to do more than just consume. It is a reminder of the joys and responsibilities of community, for making sure we are all fed.
I’ve had many delicious meals since COVID started, many in the comfort of my own home with only my cat begging for a slice of sushi as company, and some in thoughtful restaurants that somehow managed to survive the past two years. But to be honest, I would trade most of those meals to be back under the setting Spanish sun, sipping vermouth and spitting out cherry pits, surrounded by the warmth of strangers. I hope that we can all find that kind of sustenance wherever we are in the world.
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer, editor and occasional oyster slinger based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.