"What do you do?"
"Is this your first time here?"
"How long have you been traveling?"
I was sitting at a restaurant with some people I'd just met — which was lovely — but after traveling across Thailand for several weeks, I didn't want to ask and answer the same questions again.
I'd recently read Jodi Ettenberg's blog post on condiments around the world, and had been paying more attention to what was served in different countries. So instead of joining the rote Q&A session, I examined each of the jars on our small plastic table. Then, picking up the prik naam plaa, I asked my companions: "If you could only live with one condiment for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
Much to my surprise and delight, my new friends didn't look at me with confusion or repugnance; they instead began a lively conversation. For the next 20 minutes we discussed the merits of hot sauce versus mustard, whether table salt counted as a condiment (I say no), and where we'd found the best pad Thai.
This natural conversation-starter also led to a deeper exploration of each other's food histories and proclivities, and since then I've used it on all sorts of occasions — when traveling, of course, and at cocktail parties and conferences, or anywhere else I'm anxious to skip the small talk.
The eccentricity of the question usually catches people off-guard and forces them to display some of their true colors — which, in my mind, is the definition of an icebreaker. Plus, asking it displays a sense of humor and whimsy, and shifts the focus away from how someone earns their money, which I've heard experts say is technically kind of rude! (And don't we all talk about work enough?)
While some respondents assess the practicalities — one condiment forever? Why do I have to choose? — and others blurt out a singular answer, I've discovered that my favorite people, my people, are the ones who really let the question marinate. They're ones who mull it over, throwing out thoughtful suggestions and then finally settling on one idea just to change it later. "Maybe Sriracha," they say. "Oh, but it'd be so hard to give up sour cream."
The best part about this silly culinary debate, however, is it usually leads to other topics. If you choose gochujang, maybe we'll start talking about Asian mothers, life in Korea, and the best places to find kimchi jjigae in the city.
If you mention peanut butter, maybe I'll learn it's because you often bring it on hikes to smear on an apple, or because you eat it out of the jar while watching The Bachelor. (Yes to both of those activities, please.) That's a much less awkward — and more authentic — way to discover an acquaintance's interests than to ask "Um, so what do you do for fun?"
If you prize mayonnaise, I'll automatically assume I'll really like you, because mayonnaise is undoubtedly the least cool condiment of my generation. So saying it's your condiment is also saying you're an honest person who DGAF about what others think. (My boyfriend's a proud mayo guy. #respect)
To me, food is the great connector; the thing that brings us all together. It's a way to discover — and celebrate — our similarities and our differences. Even if someone's not a "foodie" who can blather on about the merits of pine nuts versus sunflower seeds in a roasted watermelon salad, anyone can talk about condiments. Kids included.
So try this icebreaker the next time you're in a new situation. To really get to know someone, it can be fun to ask something a little unexpected — a little saucy, even (sorry, had to).
More Talking Points
By the way, what's your favorite condiment?