Laura Hayes

Walking up to the door of a row home to attend a MealTribes dinner in D.C., there are caffeinated squirrels in my stomach. It’s the same feeling that accompanies blind dates and job interviews. The pressure is on. Guidelines for the potluck dinners for millennials say: “Deep, unconventional conversation is highly encouraged and makes this the most rewarding.” Also: “Try to cultivate some rewarding relationships with other attendees.” Come as strangers and leave as enlightened friends (or more).

MealTribes is an online platform launching today in the District. Founders Jared Gold, Marin Galvin, Cammie Wolff, and Dylan Nunn have operated in test mode since January, and more than 10 meals have taken place thus far. Galvin says she founded MealTribes because someone once told her she wasn’t comfortable in uncomfortable situations. “Since then, I’ve loved to get out of my comfort zone and meet people from circles I probably didn’t grow up with.” The meals, which have included dinners and brunches, are free except for the cost of bringing a dish to share.

On my test drive I enter Galvin’s home, and while there are neither male rompers nor avocado toast, I’m certain one of the bearded males in attendance arrived via hoverboard. Most of the 10 twenty-somethings present work in a smattering of start-ups. Others are taking “sabbaticals” while figuring out what to do next.

Two minutes into the experience, I’ve already broken one of the rules. “You’re welcome to either make food or buy pre-prepared food (e.g. from Whole Foods / Trader Joe’s / similar level of grocer recommended).” My pasta salad that goes straight into the fridge is from Streets.

The evening’s spread includes zucchini and squash, baked fish, picture-perfect beef, home-made bread that took three days to make, Super Bowl-sized Safeway subs, spicy Brussels sprouts, and pasta salad. But not my pasta salad, which sits in the fridge throughout the duration of the meal. Dessert is store-bought doughnuts, cookies, and pie.

Gold explains that a pre-dinner email thread will help diners compare notes so there won’t be duplicate dishes. He’s also working with a lawyer to develop terms of service to protect MealTribes should any safety issues arise such as foodborne illnesses.

Ideally people self-select,” Gold says. “If someone has never cooked before in their lives and can’t boil water, I would hope they wouldn’t sign up to make food that could be dangerous because it requires thorough cooking. I’m sure people will be diligent at the dinner to say ‘This chicken is undercooked,’ or, ‘This doesn’t smell right.’”

Patronizing a lesser-than grocery store isn’t the most taboo MealTribes violation. The dinners are to be politics free. In Washington! “We don’t allow people to talk about politics,” Galvin says, adding that the platform was born during the election. “It’s a lot calmer political climate than it was in November and December,” she says, explaining that policy has kept potluck dinners devoid of arguments and hostility.

Instead of what’s happening at the White House, the conversation revolves around the theme Galvin selects. Before the meal starts, attendees have a moment of silence focused on remembering to be present in the upcoming conversation, and then offer brief self-introductions under the instructions: “Share something about who you are, not what you do.”

“Tonight’s theme is about control,” Galvin reveals. The word spawns a navel-gazing discussion about nihilism, discipline, indulgence, and the elusiveness of being happy. Naturally, someone quotes Mo Gawdat‘s book, Solve for Happy.

Another person shares, “I’ve read a lot of things about extrinsic motivation. If I get this, if I get that. Placing happiness on outside things, you’re never happy. If you win $1 million tomorrow you’ll be pretty pumped, but within half of a year, you’ll be ‘meh’ again. Your mind is your best ally. There are people who live far below our level of quality of life and they’re like the happiest people ever, and then there are super rich people who are killing themselves every day. Controlling your mind is step one. If you control that, you’re next level.”

This excerpt isn’t an anomaly. Participants speak in hashtags and sound bites, which cultivates an atmosphere not unlike a church supper or Austin’s self-important SXSW conference. Past themes have included giving to receive, gratitude, love, and cultural diversity. While the latter category suggests MealTribes attracts a diverse group of people, Friday’s dinner is cue-ball white.

Social media’s shallowness is also a hot topic, as MealTribes seeks to cure the over-connectivity plaguing generation-iPhone. The potluck dinners are for those craving something “real” versus the fake personas people curate for themselves online.

Similar to the resurgence in popularity of vintage cameras and record players, MealTribes aims to re-create the dinner parties of the 1970s where people held hands, not phones. What is very present-day, however, is that MealTribes is cashing in on millennials’ obsession with the shared economy. It’s like Uber or airbnb for food and chit chat.

Any pregnant pauses in conversation at the dinner are filled with left-field questions. “What would you request for your last dessert if you were strapped to an electric chair awaiting execution?” one person asks. (Duh, peach cobbler laced with cyanide so you get the last laugh.) Eventually the group loosens up because of liquid lubrication in the form of wine (even though the guidelines stipulate no alcohol unless otherwise stated). At one point, someone asks what the appropriate food is to bring to an orgy.

While everyone is respectful in taking the evening’s mission seriously, there are hints that participants are in on it. One potlucker chides that hosts should make MealTribes B-I-N-G-O with words that are frequent flyers out of millennial mouths. Think Netflix, podcasts, Tim Ferriss, and disruption.

Those interested in participating can go to the MealTribes website and click a button to be added to the D.C.-area email list. Before today, the distribution list alerting people about upcoming meals was a “handpicked community on Facebook,” according to Gold. But now that it’s public, Gold says they’re planning to introduce five-minute phone calls with potential diners. “We’re not screening people in the sense of is this person cool or weird, just whether they have it all together or not,” he says. “People are putting some level of trust into us by bringing people into their homes.”

While Gold says millennials are best suited for MealTribes, they plan on opening it up to other age groups, like new parents, but will make sure people in the same age range eat together. “People want to be with their peers at dinner,”  he says. “I’m not going to argue with that.”

There are no plans to start charging people to attend the potlucks, but eventually MealTribes will seek to monetize itself by allowing brands to host sponsored events, with advertising, and what Gold calls affiliate marketing (such as encouraging participants to team up and order through Blue Apron). They’re also planning to expand beyond D.C. once they reach a certain threshold of participants and find people in other cities who are able to kick things off.

For now, Gold is content that MealTribes “has proven strangers can have a great time together.”  He says, “People are willing to come, host strangers, and everyone’s willing to respect each other.” Imagine the parallel universe where politics is on the table.