This piece originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.I used to spend a lot of time with a friend who had a very big dog. It had long hair and impressive threads of drool hanging from its mouth. Sometimes, it’d shake its head at dinner, causing the drool to fly around everywhere and end up on the table, next to our full plates. According to my friend's father, who was a doctor, there was no harm in that. And to make his point, he once bent down and slurped some dog slime as if it were an oyster. Yep.
This experience weirdly had the opposite effect of proving his point to me. It made me even more passionate about dogs and food being two things I don’t combine. So I was a bit wary when I went to Cum Panis, an event where people and dogs enjoy a three-course meal at the same table. I was the only participant without a dog, which also made me feel a bit awkward. A maximum of two people per dog are allowed to participate usually, but they graciously made an exception.
Cum Panis means “with bread” in Latin, and the word later evolved into “companion”, because companions are people you eat with. The idea behind Cum Panis is that, by sitting at the table with dogs as equal beings rather than subordinates, we can break out of our human-centric bubble and discover what we have in common with our furry housemates. After all, eating together is how people bond.These events are organised by Mediamatic, a space mainly dedicated to food and art in Amsterdam, and Eva Meijer, a researcher, philosopher, artist and novelist who wrote her PhD thesis on the political voice of animals.
When people walked in with their dogs, they first got acquainted by sharing a drink and a few snacks in a room separate from where the main event was going to be held. Some dogs immediately circled each other and sniffed each other's derrières, while others watched cautiously from between their owner's legs. There was a bit of peeing involved, too.
I first met Bella, a small, brown dog with her tongue hanging out. According to her owner, Bella thinks she’s human. “She would rather be with us than with the other dogs,” says the owner. When I scratched her behind her ears, she started squealing enthusiastically and pressed herself against my feet: instant connection.
We then moved to the dining room, where a long, low table was set with a white tablecloth. We all sat on flat, round cushions on the floor, on the same level as the dogs. It took a while before everyone was roughly seated behind a plate, but that was fine: At a dog dinner, no one has to stick to the usual etiquette, we were told in advance. Using cutlery was optional, too – even for humans.This is when I got to know my table mates. There was a fragile greyhound moving around on almost surrealistically crooked legs. She’d broken one of her front limbs as a puppy, her owner told me, and she compensated with the other one, so they both became crooked. Fifi, a fluffy Pomeranian, seemed to enjoy posing for her owner's camera. And there was also a calm dog named Rakker, or more precisely Rakker Three, as he’s the third Rakker in the family. Otto was by far the youngest dog at the table, and also the most active. He ran around in circles basically the whole time. Some dogs showed their teeth when he’d get too close, but he bonded with Hero, a wire-haired doggo who tenderly chewed his new friend's ears.
At last, the first dish arrived on the table: A lettuce leaf stuffed with rice, carrot and ginger, smoked celeriac and coconut sauce. A few dogs attacked their plate immediately. Fifi enthusiastically ate it all, leaving her fur covered in yellow turmeric stains. Other dogs sniffed the food for a moment, but stopped there.All the dishes were plant-based, so conversation turned to pets and veganism. Although no one fed their dog vegan food at home, they agreed that the line between carnivore and herbivore is not always as strict as you might think.
The main course consisted of asparagus and broccoli and some kind of salty crumbly substance. It was truly delicious and I wondered if the dogs even realised it.Dessert – apple cake with peanut butter, caramel-pumpkin sauce, and pear and berry crumble – was truly a success. All dogs licked their plates with relish.During the whole dinner, the atmosphere was very nice, really. Even though most people didn’t know each other, their dogs gave them plenty to talk about. There was no barking, and hardly any growling, either. According to one of the event’s organisers, a dinner they’d previously held did go a bit more awry. That’s why they now start with a drink and snacks in a separate room, giving the dogs time to get used to each other and the space. This seemed to be working.Funnily enough, the fact that I was sitting at the same level and ate the same food as the dogs made a difference instinctively. Suddenly, the dogs were no longer subordinate pets looking up at you with submissive eyes, they felt more like peers. This experience made me all the more aware of the hierarchy that normally prevails between mankind and animals.Sure, the dinner did include some minor inconveniences, like Fifi shyly staring at my plate, or Hero's breath making the dishes slightly less appetising. But you tolerate such things from companions, don’t you?