10 Questions for Daniel Blumstein: Breaking dinner-party taboos
Daniel Blumstein, a professor and chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recently co-wrote "The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It)" with conservationist Charles Saylan, and Blumstein attributes the inspiration for the book to an unusual quarter: dinner parties.
Salad and tapenade got the evening started at one of Blumstein's deliberately controversial dinners. Photo by Patty Civalleri.
Blumstein’s family would host Saylan’s family, and vice-versa. Other friends
— and verbal sparring partners
— joined the fun. It became a constructive argument that turned into the book, Blumstein said. Those dinner-party conversations also inspired a spin-off: Blumstein’s e-book and blog, both named "Eating Our Way to Civility."
In his writings, Blumstein advises others on how to host their own provocative but civil dinners. He offers discussion topics, recipes and ways to keep the conversation on track. On his own, Blumstein continues to host parties tackling difficult issues, especially the politics of climate change.
UCLA Today’s Alison Hewitt spoke with Blumstein for this edited Q&A.
I have to ask: Do you remain friends with your guests after a dinner party full of disagreements?
Well, many of these people are our friends. We don’t just get people off the street. Sharing ideas and talking seem to be fun, and mostly it’s good if things are getting heated. Of course, sometimes the discussions go south, so you change the topic. One of the themes in the book is that you always have lots of little courses so you can change the topic easily. You know, "Look! A new course!"
So, after hosting many of these, what inspired you to share the idea with your blog and help other people host similar dinners?
We’re going through a civility crisis. The way that people select the press they want to read and listen to has framed discussions in very polarized ways. It falls short of giving us the tools to solve some of our problems. Instead of a conversation, discussions are inflexible. There’s no real communication or discourse. But solving real-world problems requires flexibility, conversation and discourse. There has to be negotiation and discussion to come up with good solutions.
I thought, why not combine dinner parties with conversations, try to depoliticize things and just talk with good food and good wine?
You’re involved with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and many of your blog entries consider controversies about climate change. What sorts of topics do you cover at your dinners?
The environment is a topic where there should be a lot of common ground. Everyone suffers from air and water pollution, the loss of eco-systems and bad things in our food chain. So we talk about how we can change our behavior; incentivize greener behaviors; the politics of climate change; the politics of overexploitation of natural resources; thinking about how our lives would be changed if gas were much more expensive, and so on. In some cases, we talk about whether economics will solve these issues for us, or whether we need to get involved.
Has your mind ever been changed by your guests?
Sometimes. I certainly become more attuned to different perspectives. I don’t know if I’m trying to change people’s minds, though. I’m trying to get people to think and learn about other people’s positions.
When Charlie [Saylan] and I were writing the book, we learned a lot by talking and arguing and reading. It led to an article and then the book. For me, these evenings are a template for how I can continue to learn and think about issues that are important.
How did you get started hosting these dinners?
My wife and I entertain a lot, and I’ve always been associated with people who think about these things and share their ideas over food. I can’t afford to go out to the places I might like to eat, but I like to do this: Cook good food and sit around to talk and eat all night.
That does sound like a good time.
Worst case, when sometimes it feels like an intense conversation isn’t going to work out, you still have a nice dinner and just talk about less controversial things.
How do you find people to spar with?
My son is going into third grade, so we meet non-UCLA folks that way. My wife and I have also met a lot of people through UCLA daycare from all different departments. When I do field work in Colorado, we know a lot of people at the research station. So we have lawyers, physicians, non-Ph.Ds, staff members, and friends who are UCLA fans whom we’ve met at UCLA events. We entertain a lot, and the people who come have different political perspectives. It’s perhaps not as diverse as I’d like, but we talk about all the things that you’re not supposed to talk about at parties, and we have a good time doing it. And I learn a lot.
We certainly can't talk about dinner parties without talking about food. You delve into food philosophies in the book and on your blog, too. What are some of the things you consider when you host a dinner?
A big part of the book is to think about greenish recipes. The easiest thing you can do to greenify your diet is to eat vegetarian things, or at least view meat as more of a condiment. There’s no loss of flavor. So it’s not a vegetarian cookbook, but there are a lot of meat-free and low-meat recipes.
are also worthwhile. We eat more if our servings are bigger, but ironically, it's the first few bites of any food that are the most enjoyable. That's why I suggest serving lots of small "tapas" at a dinner party.
Do you have a recipe that you would recommend?
On the website, there’s a tomato tapenade
that I just sort of made up after eating something like it at a restaurant, trying to mimic it, and it turned out really delicious:
Inspired by a romantic lunch at a Spanish restaurant, tomato tapenade is a chunky delicacy that is delicious when served on warm French bread or crackers.
2 large tomatoes, 1/2 inch dice, strain out extra water
1 cup green olives, 1/4 inch dice
1 Tbs capers, drained
1 Tbs garlic, minced
1 Tbs olive oil
Fold together ingredients, mix with cracked pepper and serve.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
What sort of message do you hope people take from the book and blog?
I want to bring back conversation. We can’t allow our civility to be taken away from us by turning everything into a blue issue or a red issue, when a lot of things are purple issues. Everyone suffers from polluted air, polluted water and polluted food. These are things that we have in common, and should cross party lines, but instead we have this highly polarized debate.
It’s really important for people to communicate. There are many responsibilities of being a citizen, and one important one includes caring for the environment.