Building Trust Over a Plate of Sardines and Tomatoes

In the U.S. we are celebrating the anniversary of our Independence on July 4th this week. And with that comes a whole lot of tradition—picnics, fireworks, and FOOD.

What’s your July 4th fave? Hamburgers? Ribs? Corn on the cob? Baked beans?

For me, the meat varies depending on who’s showing up, but the constant is always Tomatoes Vinaigrette — Big juicy beefsteak tomatoes cut in thick slices and marinated in a generous drizzle of excellent olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, crushed garlic, fresh basil and oregano, salt &, pepper. Nothing says ‘good times with family and friends’ more than that. It was a dish my mother always made and recalls fun memories of large family get togethers.

We all have our traditions, many of them involve food.

In Lisbon, Portugal, sardines are the quintessential celebration food.

I happened to be in Lisbon during one of the big festivals—the Feast of Saint Anthony. It’s officially on June 13th, although the celebrating lasts for a full month and includes a huge parade and street parties all over town. Each neighborhood decorates its streets. Some simply with strings of white lights and colored plastic streamers criss-crossing the road. Some hang colorful brightly lit placards depicting pots of basil from the lamp posts. [By tradition, a young man will give a young lady he likes a small pot of basil with a poem tucked inside; her job is to maintain it for the year as a symbol the love will last. No pressure there!] Then there are the steep winding streets of the Alfama area decked out with colorful elaborate booths for food, drink, singing, and dancing. Every weekend is a party until the wee hours of the morning.

The main food in all the Saint Anthony festivities is grilled sardines–fresh caught whole sardines, doused generously with salt and olive oil, grilled over a wood fire until the skin crackles. Served with bread, olives, a grilled pepper salad, and beer or wine.

It’s such a humble dish. What elevates it to extraordinary is the energy around it. Streets are closed off. Large picnic tables are pulled out. The music is cranked up from open windows above. Neighbors gather and eat and drink until well after midnight. It’s the experience, the energy, the memories created when people come together to share food and connection.

Since the time of the early Greeks, sharing food has been the hallmark of civility and conversation. When I traveled in Greece a few years back, I noticed that urns of wine and olive oil, platters of bread and olives were often pictured front and center on artifacts that depicted people together.

And it turns out, science is now confirming that sharing food builds trust. In a 2016 study published in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, Dr. Ayelet Fishbach of University of Chicago found that strangers who shared the same food developed trust faster and were able to reach more satisfactory outcomes in negotiations than those who did not share the same food.

Does food and gathering have a place in your organization? It figured predominantly in the Army culture I knew. The monthly “hail and farewell” reception. The annual Dining-In or Dining-Out, a more formal dinner event meant to honor our shared military history. Informal unit parties. Promotion ceremonies. Change of Command receptions. All connecting people through food.

Does your organization reinforce trust by bringing people together around food?

A monthly birthday cake? Lunch & Learns? Breakfast with the boss? Department summer picnics?

How does food and gathering strengthen your connection?


Photo credit: JMaliszewski, 2018. Tomatoes Vinaigrette. St. Anthony’s street festival. Sardines on the grill in Lisbon.


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