The common refrain in any discussion about good food or good beer is that it is a joy best shared. I think this is true, for the most part – with precious few exceptions, every amazing meal I’ve had was shared with my partner or friends. Likewise, I don’t tend to remember having my world genuinely rocked by many beers I drank alone. So, what alchemy takes place to change a thing from passable to spectacular in a group setting?
We are, as humans, a social animal. Even those of us who prefer the quiet company of ourselves still have needs that can only be serviced in the presence of another. I find it fascinating how deeply this concept is screwed through us – how does the mere presence of someone else that we care about add spice and zest to a meal? Why does the act of conversation add depth and character to a pint of beer? Why does having someone sat next to you cause you to laugh more loudly and easily during a comedic performance or film? The answer probably has its roots in evolutionary biology, an area in which I am not adequately educated. Something about the forging and strengthening of the bonds of community for the increased safety of all participants, I should imagine. Regardless, it seems to me undeniable that being able to discuss the merits of a beer, or to remark “Jaysus, have you tried these potatoes!?” truly does affect the experience in a significant manner. The mere act of sharing simply makes it better.
For instance, I make a chicken soup that I very much enjoy, but it’s probably the fact that my partner gets so excited about it that makes me appreciate it as much as I do. I can slow roast something to succulent perfection, but it is when I put it in front of appreciative friends that it truly begins to taste just right. I can eat a chicken schnitzel wrap, hungover, in a café but it isn’t quite perfect unless I’m sat opposite someone who can empathise and share. While I can’t, with great confidence, put my finger on what it is precisely that heightens our pleasure in these areas, I can say that it is the definite truth.
Maybe it really is that simple. Somewhere in the recesses of your brain is a gauge that indicates how much you can enjoy something. The quality, quantity and comfort (or novelty) of food can only fill it up so much. Then other things, like necessity, environment, or lack of stress can also fill up that meter. And that is as far as the meter can be filled alone. With more people in the mix, you can add a few more bars due to conviviality and social engagement also. The resonant effect of seeing someone enjoying themselves while you too are enjoying yourself probably causes a flare up in that community-driven monkey brain as well. All of which loads points into the cause or focus of the joy; that glass or plate in front of you.
This is not to say that one can’t experience a transcendent appreciation of something alone. I remember in my youth, after a shopping trip, taking the bread we had just bought, spreading it with butter and having it with a glass of chilled water from the fridge. The water was in a reused juice bottle, one which had not been rinsed out thoroughly, so the water was – in addition to being icy cold – ever so faintly orange and mango flavoured. The bread was fresh enough to still be warm, so the butter melted into the pillowy soft slice. A friend called me shortly after finishing and I told him I’d just had the most amazing meal, and when he asked me what I’d had, I came back to earth with a jolt as I told him “…bread and water,” realising that he probably thought I was being facetious. But it was, as the kids say, a Moment.
This, in addition to a number of well deployed coffees, a plate of frutti di mare spaghetti in Italy and some beers I’ve drunk here or around the world (to name but a few) have shown me that you can certainly have these epiphanies by yourself. But it just seems so much easier to spark one of these magical experiences in a group. Whether that’s you and your oldest mate sharing one of the special bottles you put away and forgot about or popping the top of something purpose-bought to share, or during a meal at a restaurant with friends or around your family table. Even during an intimate evening with a lover or some close acquaintances, the magic just seems to manifest much more readily in the presence of others. The veg tastes a little better, the meat a little more savoury, the fizz and complexity of the beer just a little more delightful.
But of course, nothing tastes as good as shredded cheese straight out of the bag in front of the fridge at 2am though, right?