Students enjoy the cuisine, company, conversation and cultural enlightenment at the Virtuous Table’s Greek event on Oct. 16 at the Anteater Recreation Center. Steve Zylius / UCI

In ancient Greece, the typical symposium looked nothing like the academic conference of today. Instead, it was an informal affair at which aristocratic men gathered to philosophize and debate while enjoying wine and food. Exchanging ideas and eating went hand in hand.

A new collaborative project at UCI called the Virtuous Table follows in the steps of these Hellenic connoisseurs (minus the alcohol and sexism). It’s a series of free events featuring specially themed and curated meals – and intellectual conversations are also on the menu.

Second-year public health sciences major Taylor Churchill savors the Greek meal, which also included spanakopita (Greek spinach and feta) and tomatosalata me fasolakia (tomato and string bean salad). Steve Zylius / UCI

The brainchild of English professor Julia Reinhard Lupton and history professor Yong Chen, the Virtuous Table combines philosophy, religious studies and world literature to open up fresh ways of looking at food. Before the main course is served, various scholars make brief presentations on unified topics. Students then have an opportunity to discuss the subject matter over their meals. A Q&A session accompanies dessert.

The events – for which reservations go fast – also provide a venue for exploring themes in Chen’s longstanding and popular “What to Eat” class, with current enrollees getting priority access. Funding for the Virtuous Table comes from the Confronting Extremism initiative, which supports social justice efforts.

But what makes the project more than just academically enriching is its adaptation of another ancient tradition: the table fellowship of the New Testament. Jesus was reported to sit with traitors and peasants, and Jews joined non-Jews for communal meals. The Virtuous Table is about not only ideas, but the virtues that bring many different people together in one shared experience: tolerance, respect, hospitality, empathy and humility.

An extension of the successful Conversation Kitchen series of workshops led by UCI culinary programs coordinator Jessica VanRoo, the project relies on its ability to foster a common sense of humanity. Menu co-designer and head chef at every event, VanRoo has been collaborating with Chen on food programs for the past five years. “I really wanted to take two cultures that were in conflict and force them to sit at a table with each other and just talk,” she says.

Head chef Jessica VanRoo (left), who coordinates UCI’s culinary programs, stirs the main dish, youvetsi (lamb with orzo), while her assistants tend the diples (fried turnovers) for dessert. Steve Zylius / UCI

Right around the time she and Chen began toying with the idea of using cuisine to unite people, the Emmy Award-winning “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” debuted. VanRoo says the CNN show, based on the same concept, parallels many of UCI’s current efforts to promote inclusivity.

Out of the four themed meals being presented this quarter, three of them – Greek Table, Persian Table and Buddhist Table – examine specific “wisdom traditions.”

Lupton describes a wisdom tradition as being the middle ground between the pure logic of philosophy and the exclusivity of religion. “You can learn things from the Zoroastrians’ ideas about living together that non-Zoroastrians can benefit from,” she says. “You don’t have to be a Jew to benefit from the wisdom of the Ten Commandments. Wisdom tradition really applies to Buddhism. It came out of Asia, took different forms in different Asian countries, but it’s had this global impact, and we can all learn from Buddhism without necessarily becoming Buddhist.”

Chen’s class, which focuses on the evolution of “foodways” in immigrant communities throughout America, will use the Virtuous Table to see what that looks like on an international scale, with wisdom traditions traveling, growing and changing.

For example, the Greek Table event, which took place Oct. 16 at the Anteater Recreation Center, featured freshly made Greek dishes such as spanakopita and tomatosalata me fasolakia, but the wisdom tradition at its heart was that of the early Christians in the New Testament, who adopted the hospitality activities of both the ancient Greeks and Jews.

Scholars addressing the diners were Duncan Pritchard, UCI Chancellor’s Professor of philosophy; Zina Giannopoulou, UCI associate professor of classics; and Tommy Givens, associate professor of New Testament studies at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary.

The Virtuous Table’s organizers hope it can serve as a model for use in various venues. “A community group could have a Greek Table; another campus could have one,” Lupton says. “You could go to a Greek restaurant and do this program, or you could do it in a home or church – wherever you feel it could be an interesting thing to explore.”