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Comparing commensality: Festive eating occasions among French, German and Spanish young adults

Comparer la commensalité : Occasions alimentaires festives chez des jeunes adultes français, allemands et espagnols
Giada Danesi


This essay explores festive eating occasions among French, German and Spanish young adults. It draws from in-depth interviews with 83 young adults of these three nationalities living in one of these countries, as well as participant, direct and ‘floating’ observation of their eating events in Lyon, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and Madrid. The paper sheds light on commonalities and differences between their festive forms of commensality in relationship with their position in the life course, their generation, nationality, and the local contexts in which their practices, and more broadly, their lives take place. Festive commensality in the framework of cross-cultural research emerges as a key and critical notion for comparing eating arrangements and systems. The focus on commensal practices of a specific and crucial age group has made it possible to take a life course perspective to cross-national research in this study, which opens up an interesting way of conveying dynamism in comparison of food-related practices.

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I am grateful to Isabelle Darmon and Alan Warde for having organized the workshop ‘Comparing Foodways’ in June 2013 at the University of Manchester and for the fruitful advices they gave to me during the writing of this essay. I am also grateful to the informants for the crucial information they gave to me, allowing me to think and write on this topic of research in relation to their practices and accounts. Finally the Research Center of the Institut Paul Bocuse and the SIRHA/Gl-Events Exhibitions are gratefully acknowledged for having funded this research and for their support throughout the project.


1Social scientists have highlighted that the meal is a social institution and lies at the very core of sociality. Commensality is at the origin of the establishment of social ties and of the strengthening of sociable relationships, while displaying social distinctions, hierarchies, and structures (Fischler, 2011; Holm et al., 2012; Mennell et al., 1992; Richards, 2004; Simmel, 1992). Therefore, food sharing has a pivotal role in the transmission of social norms and values, and the ‘commensal circle’ (Sobal et al., 2002) draws borders between identity and otherness.

2Feasts mark important times of the year and of human existence. Moreover, the sharing of symbolic food within a community and the material abundance enacted through feasting enable people to celebrate and reinforce social ties (Flandrin, 1999; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1991).

3Commensal practices as social forms have specific features according to cultural templates that guide social relationships while constructing and maintaining social boundaries. Celebrations as praxis ‘replicate enduring elements of social structure by constructing several varieties of behavioral particularism within a prevailing ideology of universality’ (Wallendorf & Arnould, 1991: 26). Indeed, commensal events develop from cultural templates and ‘rely on social knowledge about what to do and how to do it’ (Julier, 2013: 22). Even the most informal occasions of hospitality operate on certain shared assumptions about appropriate behaviours, food, and expectations within the community that gathers together (Julier, 2013).

4So far, only a few studies have sought to unravel how eating events vary between social groups, highlighting differences between social classes, ethnic-racial groups, and life course positions (Julier, 2013; Sobal et al., 2002; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1991). Recent research also sheds light on relevant differences between eating modes and attitudes toward food across countries. For example, the time spent eating in and eating out by individuals in Western countries, as well as the percentage of individuals eating at the same time are still very differentiated (de Saint Pol, 2006; ODELA, 2004; Southerton et al., 2011; Warde et al., 2007; Zander et al., 2005). Both the role of pleasure and shared pleasure, and the role of individual choices, are aspects that strongly divide Western eaters (Fischler & Masson, 2008; Pfirsch, 1997). Striking differences distinguish Northern European countries and the United States from Southern European countries, once more drawing a line between historically Protestant and historically Catholic countries (Weber, 2003). On one hand, the pleasure of being together while eating is an essential feature of Southern European countries. This might explain the higher number of shared meals and the longer time spent eating reported in this area. On the other, the populations of Northern Europe and the US mainly conceive eating in nutritional and functional terms. In their discourses, personal choice and individual freedom are emphasised (Fischler & Masson, 2008). These observations suggest that eating together in these countries assumes a different role, and that food gatherings display distinct features. Nevertheless, cross-national research hasn’t paid attention to festive meals and commensal forms from a comparative perspective. Moreover, due to the importance of representativeness in the frame of cross-national comparison, very few studies have taken a qualitative approach to investigating eating practices, sociability and the meanings that individuals and groups attach to sociable meals.

5The purpose of this paper is to describe festive practices of commensality among French, German and Spanish young adults in order to highlight and discuss commonalities and differences between the three populations studied in relationship with their position in the life course, their generation, their nationality, and the local contexts in which their practices and, more broadly, their lives take place. Festive commensality in the framework of cross-cultural research emerges as a key and critical notion for comparing eating arrangements and systems. Moreover, the focus on commensal practices of a specific and crucial age group has made it possible to take a life course perspective to cross-national research in this study, which opens up an interesting way of conveying dynamism in comparison of food-related practices.

6The countries and nationalities of informants were chosen following the results of other cross-national surveys (Fischler & Masson, 2008; Pfirsch, 1997; Southerton et al., 2011). France and Spain were selected because of the higher probability to observe commonalities in terms of commensal practices and their underlying meanings. Conversely, the choice of Germany was related to the prospect of finding more diverse situations than in France and Spain.

7‘Young adults’ were chosen as a significant population to investigate for a number of reasons: first since the Second World War, this liminal (Van Gennep, 1981) and ‘de-structured’ phase of life has become wider (Galland, 1997) and the influence of young people on other generations and more broadly on society has become stronger. Thus, researchers observed that the gap between the values of different generations has narrowed (Galland, 2007; Morin, 1963). Nevertheless, this phase of life retains certain specificities, namely high mobility and the instability of conjugal, professional, economic, and residential situations (Van de Velde, 2008). Research on young people’s food-related practices has highlighted ruptures with previous rules and the setting up of news values and systems during youth, which can be transitory or durable (Diasio & Pardo, 2009; Garabuau-Moussaoui, 2002). As a liminal phase, youth is a crucial stage for the personal development of individuals, for identity construction, and for the redefinition of commensal units and circles. It could be surmised that it is their mobility and instability which contribute to the significance of this age group for all age groups – especially for such an object of analysis as festive commensality, as site of bonding, whether short-lived or durable. Secondly the relation of young people to food (i.e. independence in terms of food provisioning and consumption, particular lifestyle and living conditions) has markedly changed over the last decades and has become crucial to contemporary societal concerns, especially due to changing processes of intra- and inter- generational transmission of eating patterns and social values.

8While there have been many studies on the eating habits of children and adolescents, very little research focuses on young adults. Furthermore, very few cross-national studies exist on social practices of young adults as these are mainly investigated within frameworks of life course and subcultures perspectives (Brake, 1980) without taking into account their nationalities and the country in which their practices take place.

9The next section presents the methodological framework of the research and explains the methods and design of the project. Section three describes young adults’ festive practices of commensality and points out the commonalities and differences between the practices of the three populations and the cultural contexts studied, with particular emphasis on formats of commensality in different locations and on meal structures. In the final section, the main results and their relationship with age, generation, and national meal patterns are discussed. This leads to a brief discussion on the benefit of focusing on a key notion, commensality, and on a relevant age group, for conveying dynamism to cross-national comparison.

Methodological framework and design


10Between 2009 and 2012, I explored commensal practices and their meanings in three national contexts –France, Germany and Spain– by adopting an ethnographic approach and a cross-cultural perspective. The research focused on French, German and Spanish young adults living in Lyon, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and Madrid. The research strategy chosen is predicated on the significance of the cases studied (Vigour, 2005). Particular attention has been given to practices and social interactions on both a contextual and a micro-level scale, which gives the opportunity to capture the mindlessness of everyday life, and gets beyond what is usually taken for granted. At the same time, attention has been paid to personal story-telling and points of views. As a broader set of methods, ethnography is effective in approaching ‘practices as entities and as performances’ (Southerton et al., 2011: 21).

11The field has not been conceived as a ‘geographically bounded location’ (Boccagni, 2012: 305), but as a locus for ‘multi-sited fieldwork’ as theorized by Marcus (1995). The key aspect of this perspective is the need to study a phenomenon in more geographical locations relevant to the goals of the research, and unsettle the ‘familiar’ in more than one way. This perspective had an impact on the overall way in which the stages of this research has been structured, which can be summarised in the following sequence: concepts, hypotheses, units of comparison, fieldwork, and analysis.

12For the research, it has been important to plan two phases of fieldwork in France and Germany, which allowed elaboration of categories, interview guides, and places of observations throughout the research. In Spain, this has not been necessary because the fieldwork was carried out after the first phase in Lyon, Paris and Berlin was already complete. In this respect, it has also been very important to interview French, German and Spanish migrants living in another country of the research on their experience of continuities and changes after migration, and to discuss the interpretations of differences between them. In order to overcome the implicit difficulty in addressing the dynamic nature of culture and its evolution over time in a cross-national comparison, the dynamism of practices and institutions has been addressed in various ways: first, by making the evolution of eating practices over time one of the research questions; second, through the informants’ story-telling, their accounts of changes in eating and social practices, as well as their accounts on how these were linked to crucial phases of their life course; finally, by considering historical explanations of differences observed between the three countries studied.

Methods and data

13Complementary methods have been used in order to unravel different levels of experienced reality for informants: in-depth interviews, participant, direct, and ‘floating’ observation. It was essential to observe the eating practices of informants and at the same time, to listen to their accounts on practices of commensality, and past experiences.

14Most informants were between 18 and 30 years old, although some of those who were recruited to discuss their experience as immigrants were older than 30. These informants were included in the study for their transnational experience and the stronger reflexivity they displayed toward mundane practices in their country of origin, thanks to their experience of otherness in the host country.

15A total of 83 individuals were interviewed: 29 French (four of whom lived outside France, three in Berlin and one in Barcelona), 27 German (four of whom lived outside Germany, two in Lyon and two in Barcelona) and 27 Spanish (seven of whom lived outside Spain, three in Lyon, one in Paris and three in Berlin). The informants were selected across various socio-demographic characteristics (age, living arrangements, gender and employed/student status), so as to explore the role of aspects other than age and nationality on their practices of commensality. The selection criteria were defined on an ongoing basis throughout the research. Only individuals with a baccalaureate were recruited, as the objective was to have similar comparison units. Informants were currently living in one of the cities where fieldwork was carried out. Some of them grew up in one of these cities, while others came from other regions of the country and had moved to the city for their studies, or to work. A few informants whose parents were originally from another country were interviewed as well. However, these informants had been living in the countries studied either from birth, or for most of their life.

16It is worth highlighting some differences in the recruitment of informants according to their nationality. These differences arose from the difficulty to draw the boundaries of this age category as they change dramatically from one country to another, from one social milieu to another, and are influenced by the educational, professional, and biographical paths of individuals (Diasio & Pardo, 2009; Van de Velde, 2008). Therefore, it has been very important to be prudent for decisions concerning the age and living conditions of informants, and to readapt the criteria throughout the research.

17A large number of Spanish informants aged between 26 and 30 were interviewed because of the importance of including Spanish young people who already had an independent habitat and had finished their studies, whilst still perceiving themselves as young adults. However, a majority of Spanish participants still lived at their parents’ home. A larger number of German informants lived in flat share, as it was the most common living arrangement of young adults living in Berlin.

18The informants were mostly recruited through snowball sampling. In Berlin and in Barcelona, posters informing students of the recruitment of young people for an interview on their eating habits were also pinned on universities’ boards.

  • 1 In France, all the interviews were carried out in French, with the exception of one interview with (...)

19During the interviews, the young people were asked to give an account of their eating practices, of changes in their eating patterns and arrangements over the last years, of occasions of food sociability with their peers, as well as the feelings and meanings they attached to the social context of eating. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and two hours, and were conducted in three languages: French, English and Spanish1. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed.

20Floating and participant observation of young adults’ eating events took place in different locations. Participant observation took place at the informants’ homes, when they invited people at home for meals or parties involving food. I also attended some of the informants’ meals in restaurants, in cafés and in other food outlets, as well as eating events in public spaces. Finally, I conducted many direct observation sessions in food establishments and public spaces, where I sat and observed young people eating together or alone.

21Content analysis and grounded theory were used to analyse data by identifying and building the most significant themes of analysis to address the research questions. The analytic strategy was iterative, and included a descriptive level alongside conceptual and explanatory insights.

Commonalities of festive food gatherings among French, German and Spanish young adults

Contexts of festive meals

22Festive meals were shared with individuals with whom they had various types of relationships: their family, friends, flatmates, colleagues, partners and, in some cases, their children. The variety of their commensal units is an indicator of the multiplicity of social belongings at this life stage. There is the family of origin, as well as the new family union. In some cases, friends and flatmates became for them a temporary family because of the affective attachment, trust and close relationship established with them, or simply because the family of origin was geographically far away.

23Informants organised social gatherings around food for many types of occasion. The multitude of commensal units, alongside the informality and spontaneity of their social gatherings around food might explain their high frequency. Festive meals took place regularly on weekends. Other festive meals were related to religious, secular, or political celebrations, as well as important moments of one’s life, such as birthdays, the award of a study degree, the departure for a job or studies abroad, or taking or leaving a new flat. The location in which festive meals took place varied. Restaurants, homes, or public spaces were variously chosen depending on the scope and character of the social gatherings.

Festive meals in restaurants and public space

24Eating in a restaurant was a leisure activity for which young adults gathered with peers to share, socialise and celebrate meaningful occasions. The interviewees highlighted a variety of reasons behind their choice of going to restaurants to eat. Not only does the restaurant cater for their need for both comfort and discovery, but it also constitutes a neutral space where they can meet individuals with whom they entertain a less intimate relationship, as some informants emphasised. The main activities at the restaurant were chatting and tasting foods different from those they usually eat at home. Moreover, a few informants stressed that the restaurant is also convenient as no one has to cook, serve, or clean up.

  • 2 All interviews’ quotes are translated from French or Spanish, with the exception of the quotes of G (...)

25There are notable differences between studying and working young adults in terms of frequency and spontaneity of food consumption in restaurants. Employed informants tended to eat in restaurants more frequently and spontaneously than their student peers. Some of them gathered with their friends in restaurants once or twice a week. Most students only ate in restaurants occasionally, and for a few special occasions. They usually opted for other places and types of meal for meeting with their peers. A few students who had a larger amount of money available stressed that they did not meet their friends in restaurants as often as they would have liked. The reason for this was that not all of them could afford these costs, and that they preferred to spend their money on other leisure activities that are more valued at this stage of life, such as concerts or cinema. For example, Bérangère (22 years old, French, student, living in Lyon) said: ‘I like restaurants, but then it’s not always the same, if we go to a restaurant it’s in a group of people, so you have to adapt to the money everyone has, thus it’s not always easy. It’s true that I have the impression that we go outside less and less, we are a lot in each other’s flats’2. Jonas (27, German, student, living in Berlin) explained: ‘Especially as a student, I can’t eat out everyday. (…) For example, I went eating with two of my friends after I… for Diplom (…). Maybe there is not a reason to celebrate, sometimes I just go there because I say… but it is a kind of event like planned and so, I told Andy ‘Let’s go, Saturday we go to this restaurant and we have a piece of cream cake’, it is something special, it is not just that I’m hungry and we go to the restaurant’. Very different was the discourse of the informants who already had a job, such as Constance (23, French, living in Paris): ‘In general, I go to a restaurant with my boyfriend, with some friends, (...) because we meet after work, we don’t want to go home, and because we don’t live all in the same area, we often eat where we meet, so yes, it happens really often’.

26In the warm season, festive meals among young adults were occasionally organised in public spaces, and they usually took place in the evening or in the afternoon during the weekend. These were picnics or barbecues, mostly organised in parks or on walks close to a river, a lake, or the sea, in the city centre, or in the outskirts. Food might be purchased already prepared before going to the meeting or it could be prepared at the respective homes and brought to the site of the meeting. Additionally, and mainly for barbecues, ingredients could be purchased separately and the food was then prepared on site. This type of meal enabled young adults to gather outside to share food without having to spend a lot of money.

Festive meals at home

27The majority of informants preferred to share meals at home with their friends rather than in restaurants. Domestic hospitality was, in fact, frequent when housing conditions permitted. Guests were mostly close friends or, in the case of parties, the invitation was extended to a large circle of friends and acquaintances.

28They justified their preference by referring to privacy at home, the highest degree of freedom and informality in the way of interacting with the social environment, alongside the possibility to prepare and offer food to people they care about or cook with them. Explaining why she prefers gathering friends at home, Pascale (24, French, student, living in Lyon) emphasised that: ‘Firstly, we are alone, there are not other people around, we are in a friendly place that we know, there is a cocooning dimension, comfort, we can hear each other talking (she laughs), because the restaurants are also often quite noisy. Then yeah, when it’s me inviting, there is always also the possibility to give pleasure to the others within food’. Guillaume (23, French, student, living in Lyon) said that he really appreciates the possibility to circulate during the dinner, to eat with his friends at their own rhythms, as well as the opportunity ‘to behave like children!’.

  • 3 Literally, dining aperitif. It is a fusion of the aperitif and the dinner.
  • 4 Literally, pick-pick (bites). A few informants used this expression to refer to social gatherings a (...)

29Three types of meals were observed when the informants entertained at home: structured meals with more courses that were served diachronically, simplified meals with just one main course, synchronic meals that involved several dishes that were eaten without a specific order (i.e. apéritifs dînatoires3 in France, brunches in Germany and pica-pica4 in Spain).

30In the first type of meal, food took on a central role, and it had celebratory, exploratory, and even ostentatious functions. Table manners were more formal compared to the other types of meal. Participants focused on food and conversation. The host invested time and effort for the preparation and expected guests to manifest gratitude and to compliment them. This type of meal was organised only occasionally, and mainly by those informants who enjoyed cooking, had friends who were also interested in food, and were living in flats equipped to receive guests and where the table could be fully set up. Cécile (25, French, living in Lyon with her boyfriend) highlighted that: ‘It depends on who we invite (...), because we have some friends who like also to have meals, thus it’s more that we invite each others, we do ’meal exchanges’ (she laughs), because not everybody has this culture, it’s a bit transitory, when you are 20 years old you will not invite some friends to have a proper meal, but it’s true that it depends on the people, but we have several friends in couple who like also to do that, and then it’s true that that’s also enjoyable’.

31The second type of meal was familiar, organised spontaneously or planned a few days in advance if a special dish was cooked. It usually lasted longer than everyday meals and included alcohol. Pasta and rice often featured on these meals, but informants sometimes provided special dishes (e.g. burgers, pancakes, chilli con carne). The food was mainly a pretext to gather people and spend time together, but sometimes it was also for the pleasure of eating something that they would not have cooked just for themselves.

32Finally, synchronic meals were organised when the host did not have the time, the wish, or the material equipment to accommodate many people for a meal around a table, but also when they wanted to organise a party involving food and drinks with many guests. These meals were composed of a range of dishes (e.g. olives, bread, cheese, cold cuts, pizzas) that participants shared and ate throughout the gathering. The dishes were prepared by the host or delivered. The host also had the possibility to ask guests to prepare or buy and bring food and drinks for the meal. For example, Daila (28, Spanish, living in Barcelona with her boyfriend) described the kind of meals they have at home with their friends: ‘When friends come to our home, we eat at the coffee table. (...) Because in the best case, if we have prepared some pizzas, it’s something more like that, then yeah we are already sat on the sofa, then you stay there chatting and so on. (...) Yes, we put a bit of cold cuts, you put some bread with tomatoes, and everyone is having a bite’. The social organisation and the dynamism of social interactions during brunches organised by German young adults in Berlin was very similar. While the time of the meal differs (brunch in Germany and dinner in France and Spain), the food eaten was partially the same and included, for example, cold cuts, cheese, and pancakes.

Characteristics of synchronic meals

33The synchronic meals organised at home and the meals in public spaces share many traits. The food itself was rarely the main reason to meet, and the core of the gathering was not the opportunity to cook for others, to discover and to taste new dishes, or to talk about food. These meals were the pretext to gather and spend time together while eating and drinking. Each participant was free to bring what he/she preferred to eat.

34The meals were composed of several dishes and everyone had the opportunity to choose to eat what and how much they wanted. The food was displayed in communal dishes from which participants could either eat directly using their hands, or take a portion and place it on their own plate.

35The costs and the preparation were split between participants, and everyone contributed by taking on particular tasks, such as tidying up or washing dishes, or by bringing something to eat and/or drink. Sharing was almost equal and mutual, and was complemented by the acceptance of what was offered by others. These types of meal convey a communitarian dimension of social relationships, even if in some cases the person organising the food gathering contributed in a more consistent way by means of their work, time and money. The person who was hosting at his/her flat, or who was celebrating his/her birthday, or took the initiative of organising the food gathering in a public space, was often in charge of planning, and ensuring the availability of utensils and cutlery.

36These meals also prevented the host from staying in the kitchen when guests had arrived and to gather friends and acquaintances even without having the material equipment to organize a ‘proper meal’. In fact, participants could sit on the floor, in a circle around the coffee table, or they could also be standing and moving around to talk with different people or to get food. Unlike in meals consumed around a table, places and interlocutors were not fixed.

37On the one hand, these meals display a communitarian dimension because food is taken from common plates and tasks and costs are shared. On the other, when compared to home meals in which everyone eats the same food, this type of meal is more individualised. Everyone had, in fact, the possibility to choose what, how much, and when to eat, and it was easier to accommodate individual preferences or diets, as well as varying timetables.

38Despite transnational trends of informalisation and commodification of eating patterns with non-kin (Julier, 2013; Warde et al, 2007), young people in the three countries thus drew on different templates of festive commensality. The three types of meal reported on above differ significantly first of all regarding the type of location, but also types of food, ways of interacting, degrees of formality, as well as social organisation. The type of meal chosen by informants varies according to the number of guests, the equipment and type of accommodation, as well as the profile of the host and participants (e.g. living arrangements and age). A key differentiating feature between festive commensality formats, which may even be seen as an organiser of these formats alongside location, is that of synchronicity vs diachronicity.

Differences of festive food gatherings among French, German and Spanish young adults

39Despite the variety of formats from which to draw in the three countries, there are some privileged forms of festive commensality in each of them, with specific temporal, spatial and social dimensions.

Meals and occasions to gather friends around food

  • 5 Literally, coffee and cake. It is a traditional short break between lunch and dinner composed of a (...)

40The daily meals for which the three populations gathered with peers were different. French and Spanish respondents mainly met their friends for aperitifs and dinners, or for types of meal combining these two food events (apéritifs dînatoires and picnics taking place in the evening in France, and tapas or pica-pica in Spain). All festive meals observed during fieldwork in France and Spain were dinners and most of the accounts of the French and Spanish young adults on sociable meals with friends referred to this meal. Conversely, German informants mainly gathered their friends around brunches, Kaffee und Kuchen5, or barbecues and picnics taking place in the afternoon.

41The importance of these conventions showed in the efforts made by young migrants to adopt them, even though they would also try and maintain their own former sociability practices. For example Beatriz (25, Spanish, who moved to Berlin for work) observed that in Berlin it was unusual to meet friends for dinner on Saturday evening. This was what she used to do when she lived in Madrid. Once she discovered that in Berlin the custom was to spend time with friends while having brunch on the weekend, she integrated this practice in her routine as this seemed the easiest way to share sociable meals with her friends in Berlin.

42Agnes and Lea (German women, respectively 22 and 23 years old, who had been living in Barcelona for a few years) usually met at the weekend with another German friend to have brunch together because they really appreciate sharing this meal with their friends in order to socialise as they used to do in their country of origin. They also occasionally prepared brunches at home for their boyfriends and for a couple of Spanish friends in order to introduce them to the typical German weekend breakfast as a sociable practice. They also shared dinners in Spain because this was what their circle of friends did. Nonetheless, they met regularly for brunches with a small circle of compatriots, and they introduced some of their Spanish friends to the brunch.

Locations of food gatherings and the respective importance of food and drinks

43The custom to invite friends home for meals was predominantly observed among French and German young adults. The main reasons provided by French informants were the stronger conviviality of meals shared at home and the wish to give part of themselves by offering food. For German interviewees the value of homemade meals was linked to the opportunity to share something other than food consumption and conversation, such as the possibility to cook together, watch films, play table or video games. The custom of Spanish young adults to gather their friends mainly outside the house might relate on the one hand, to the lesser number of Spanish informants living in independent accommodation and, on the other, it is symptomatic of the strong distinction between the private sphere – which is reserved for the family – and the public sphere – which is dedicated to friendship ties.

44Meals at the restaurant were more a feature of festive commensality amongst young people in France and Spain than in Germany. German interviewees rarely went to restaurants. They preferred cafés and bars to spend time with friends while having brunches or Kaffee und Küchen. Furthermore, restaurants were not the locations where they would celebrate important events.

45Despite the diversity of commensality formats noted in all three countries, and the relevance both of eating out and eating at the home of one of them, notable differences can also be traced in the three populations’ relative emphasis on food or drinks to share with peers and this differed between different locations of festive commensality. Most Germans highlighted that celebrations at this life stage would take place more around drinks than around food. In France and Spain, too, sociability included drinks. However, sociable meetings with peers around food events seem to be established earlier among these two populations. In fact, restaurants were privileged locations for sociable meetings among French and Spanish respondents, and this preference extended to bars where drinks could be accompanied by snacks, tapas, and sandwiches. In Spain, several male informants said they use to gather their friends in bars to watch football matches while having a few drinks and sharing a few tapas.

Meal structures

  • 6 Literally, bread-dinner. It is a cold dinner that consists mainly of bread, cold cuts, and cheeses.

46Even the meal structures display specific features. Among German informants, most of the meals were synchronic with one main course. The only dish that followed the main course was the dessert. However, the dessert was not always served in the case of festive meals at home or ordered during festive meals in restaurants. The Abendbrot6 and the breakfast were composed of several preparations set on a table. Nonetheless, these were eaten without a specific order.

47French and Spanish informants also had synchronic meals, such as the apéritifs dinatoîres, pica-pica and tapas. However, traditional meals in these countries are mostly composed of several courses. Even in the case in which young adults ate a simplified version of these meals, the diachronic structure was the blueprint adopted in all public establishments and sociable meals at home. Their festive meals started with an aperitif, composed mainly of wine or beer. It was usually served with appetizers. All festive meals observed during the research started with an aperitif that included food. Sometimes, easy and simple food was served, such as crisps or peanuts in France, and olives in Spain. In other occasions, the food consumed was more varied and required more effort for its preparation.

48In Spain, the appetizers or starters were set in common plates and shared between participants, even when the meal was taken in a restaurant. Only the main course was set in individual plates. In France, both options were observed. In restaurants, most of the time participants had their own separate starter and main course. At home, there were occasions when the appetizers or starters were eaten from common plates, and others when everyone had their individual plate, depending on types of food served, the material equipment available, and/or the habits of individuals and friendship groups. A few French informants had both appetizers and starters. Appetizers were, for example, set on the coffee table until all guests had arrived. The starter was then served in individual plates once all guests had taken their place at the table.

Discussion and conclusions

49This essay has shown that forms of commensality among young adults share many features, which are symptomatic of this age group’s life styles and living conditions, as well as the type of relationships that this age group want to establish with their peers. As has been highlighted in previous studies (Sobal & Nelson, 2003), unmarried individuals are the group who eats at friends’ homes most frequently. Indeed, people engage in hospitality in different forms and with different expectations throughout their life course (Julier, 2013; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1991). ‘People create (in fact) bonds of intimacy with some degree of choice in non-kin relationships, using food and the household as material sites for its enactment. At the same time, the form of the event, the kind of food served, who prepares it, and how it is served indicate the nature of the relationships being created’ (Julier, 2013: 207). The relationships individuals wish to create outside their immediate family are of a different nature at different stages of life.

50Shared food consumption with peers forms part of the everyday life of young adults and introduces a festive dimension to ordinary practices. Festive meals also mark a rupture with the quantity and the quality of food young people consume in everyday life, as well as with the structure of meals, the place where food is consumed, and the ways of interacting. They imply a higher budget, and a difference in the time and effort invested in the preparation. Not only are these meals more elaborated, ritualised, and ludic but also the attention given to health, balance, and moderation is less strong, as self-control seems to lessen in situations of shared pleasure.

51Young adults’ living conditions partially explain the choice of certain types of meals and the spontaneous, informal, and collaborative nature of their forms of commensality. Meals are simplified with respect to what has been observed in other age groups. This is mainly for practical reasons such as lack of time and cooking skills, along with a search for lightness linked to aesthetic codes, dynamism, and freedom. These meals allow them to combine the diversity of individual time-use, limited budgets and material equipment, as well as diverse diets and food preferences, with their need to socialise and to build new social connections. Thus constraints also contribute to ‘crafting’ particular forms of commensality. Yet with the extension of economic insecurity beyond the boundaries of this age group, as well as due to the spread of the aesthetic and lifestyle quests just mentioned, these particular forms of commensality may well acquire a relevance which reaches beyond young people.

52Sociability is displayed and built thanks to interactive processes in which individuals choose forms of communication and exchange that allow them to bond with others. The study of the process of menu negotiation provides ‘insights about how structural constraints and individual preferences interact with shared models’ (Goode et al., 2003: 183). Informants adapted the meal format and content according to the food situation based on templates shared by the group to which they belong. These templates are specific to a temporary and limited group of individuals (e.g. friendship group), as well as to age groups and, more broadly, generations that share certain values, norms, institutions, living conditions, and life styles.

53The comparison between the eating modes of the young adults with results of other studies that focused on meals consumed in restaurants or on domestic hospitality in other age groups yields a number of commonalities, which are suggestive of contemporary trends in eating practices. Similarities have been mainly noticed with regard to buffet parties, potluck suppers and barbecues taking place in domestic hospitality in Britain (Warde & Martens, 2000) and the US (Julier, 2013), to be compared with synchronic meals organised by young adults. Such meals require less control over the menu, preparation, timing, or social interactions. Participants have the possibility not to interact with all guests, and to engage with them in different ways. Table manners tend to become more informal, favouring conversation and intimate relationships created with non-kin. A discourse about comfort and informality seems to govern contemporary hospitality in Western countries (Julier, 2013).

54While it is difficult to assert that eating practices of young adults are generalizable to whole countries, they can be interpreted as specific to both youth and urban life styles. Indeed, once the informants’ practices of commensality and their accounts of them are compared with social conventions on meal patterns and eating practices widespread in these countries, correspondences between them start to emerge rather strongly. In this research, it has been possible to observe differences of usages and modes of commensality according to the informants’ nationalities and to the countries in which these practices take place. These aspects are related to the environment in which these norms and customs exist, and to the strong mark made by social conventions and practices learned within the family and the public sphere alike during their life course. Many elements configure eating occasions, such as location, the time of the day at which they take place, and the social conventions determining what is the most appropriate behaviour in terms of courses, sequence and etiquettes to be followed.

55In the context of this study, for example, it is possible to emphasize a few aspects that clearly distinguish the contexts and populations observed, such as differences in the hierarchy of meals throughout the day and the position they occupy in the range of social meetings in which young adults participate, differences in the location of food gatherings and the respective importance of food and drinks, alongside differences between meal structures. Differences between the meal times around which the three populations gather their friends to eat are deeply related to the importance given to specific meals in the three countries, in both nutritional and, mainly, convivial terms. Furthermore, the custom of gathering peers at home or in the public sphere is suggestive of different types of relationships that young adults build with their friends and the place of friendship ties and non-kin relationships in the range of social relations at this life stage in the three cultural areas. As observed for Spanish young people in this research and in other Mediterranean countries by other researchers (Counihan, 2004), home is the sphere of kin relationships in some cultural contexts and thus non-kin food sociability mainly takes place outside. Conversely, non-kin food sociability in the private sphere has an important role among German and French informants at this life stage. In a few cases, these social ties took the place of the nuclear family, which was geographically or emotionally distant. Finally, differences between meal structures in the three populations, specifically in terms of synchronicity vs diachronicity, reveal diverse meal timings and durations. The absence of diachronic meals among German informants is evidence of less attention being paid to normative structures and less formality in their table manners. Conversely, discourses on meal patterns but also modes of eating among French and Spanish informants show the importance of the temporal sequence of meals, even if it has been possible to observe a certain simplification of traditional meal structures. The temporality of meals observed in these two populations strongly affects the duration and the format of their festive meals, which were relatively longer and more codified than meals observed among Germans.

56Comparing commensal forms suggests an interesting strategy for a better understanding of eating systems. Commensality is a key and critical notion which it is important to de-construct through cross-national comparative exercises so as to unveil localised food-related practices and the cultural systems underpinning them. Furthermore, the cross-national comparison of young people’s festive eating occasions has been fruitful as this age group is deeply concerned with transnational trends and societal transformations of eating practices while it exerts strong influence on other age groups. The observation of differences in meal patterns and the social organisation of eating according to the local contexts in which they take place and between the three groups studied highlights the relevance of research on localised food-related practices in international contexts. Festive commensality in this age group points to the multiplicity of social belongings, and their translation into modulated eating practices and formats. It also highlights the need for combining several levels of observation and analysis in the study of food cultures for a better understanding of what shapes eating practices.

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1 In France, all the interviews were carried out in French, with the exception of one interview with a Spanish immigrant. In Spain, all the interviews took place in Spanish, with the exception of one interview with a French immigrant. In Berlin, the interviews with French and Spanish migrants took place respectively in French and in Spanish, and the interviews with German informants were in English because I was not confident enough in German.

2 All interviews’ quotes are translated from French or Spanish, with the exception of the quotes of German respondents in Berlin with whom interviews were in English.

3 Literally, dining aperitif. It is a fusion of the aperitif and the dinner.

4 Literally, pick-pick (bites). A few informants used this expression to refer to social gatherings at home around nibbles.

5 Literally, coffee and cake. It is a traditional short break between lunch and dinner composed of a piece of cake and a hot drink.

6 Literally, bread-dinner. It is a cold dinner that consists mainly of bread, cold cuts, and cheeses.

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Electronic reference

Giada Danesi, Comparing commensality: Festive eating occasions among French, German and Spanish young adultsAnthropology of food [Online], S10 | 2014, Online since 30 December 2014, connection on 23 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Giada Danesi

IIAC/Centre Edgar-Morin, CNRS-EHESS,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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