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Supper surfing's goal: Bring strangers together over food

Marissa Engel came up with the idea as a way for people in a large, diverse city like L.A. to meet. She launched her plan last December; friendships have resulted.

April 27, 2012|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Three families share dinner at a Silver Lake home — from left, Melissa Vergara, Marissa Engel, Engel’s son Mars Dixon, Eric Dixon, Carla Choy, Billy Czyzyk and Keith Patterson. Engel came up with the idea of soliciting dinner invitations from strangers via Craigslist.
Three families share dinner at a Silver Lake home — from left, Melissa… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

You live in a large and diverse city. You love the idea of its many worlds.

But you rarely leave your own neighborhood.

And your friends are more or less like you.

How do you meet those who aren't? How do you breach your own borders?

Marissa Engel, 35, of Hollywood long pondered these questions.

Then, last December, she took action.

"Host a meal in your own home," she wrote in a post on Craigslist. "Make new friends and have a dinner party without spending anything!"

This was her plan: She would get strangers to invite her to dinner. Host and guest would break the ice by breaking bread. They would talk, perhaps drink wine, and, in the course of an evening, get to know each other. Engel would offer to pay her way so feeding her would not be a burden.

At the very least, as she saw it, two people who hadn't met before would have become acquainted. With luck, they would like each other enough to want to get together again.

And maybe one dinner with strangers would sow the seeds for another. Maybe the concept she called supper surfing would catch on.

"I want it to be like a movement," said Engel, a Rochester, N.Y., native, who has lived in L.A. for nearly a decade. "I want it to be a way for people to break down boundaries and forge lasting friendships."

Engel admits she's an idealist. She's never once worried about ax murderers.

"I figured anyone who was interested would be like-minded," she said.

Besides, she isn't one to shy away from experiments.

Take college, for instance. She went to three. She started at Barnard, then, to expand her horizons, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. Before graduating from Penn, she lived in a frat house and in the African American dorm and spent a semester at Swarthmore.

"When I think about it, it's all part of the same story," said this free spirit, who was active in feminist causes while in college. "It was all just part of learning about people who are different from me."

At Swarthmore, in a course about nonviolent change, her professor assigned each student to take someone who was not a friend to lunch.

As she made her way in the post-college world, that lesson about reaching out stuck with her. She sought out ways to step beyond the familiar, to learn about what she did not know.

For awhile, in San Francisco, she taught children's dance and theater. Then she moved around the country in a theater troupe, putting on plays in small, remote communities.

"My favorite was Branson, Colorado, this tiny little town in the southeast corner of the state," she said. "We stayed in trailers with the families. The kids didn't have school on Fridays to help out at the family ranch, and the nearest store was something like an hour away."

Engel came to Los Angeles hoping to land a job as a writer for television or film. In 2006, she left for six months to work for a film company in the Philippines. She had once read a book by a Penn anthropology professor about an Indonesian matrilineal society. While in the Philippines, she wrote to the professor and asked how she might visit it. Then, with just a contact name to go on, she traveled on her own to western Sumatra to spend time with the Minangkabau.

The next year, Engel began teaching writing classes to inmates in L.A. County juvenile detention, people she said she "would not have met otherwise, who live in such a very different Los Angeles."

Then she and her brother hit the road in 2008 to film a man trying to drive a self-designed solar car across the United States. The car frequently quit when the sun did, forcing its film crew to quit too. Often, they relied on the kindness of strangers to find shelter for the night.

These days, the trips she takes are far less free-form and spontaneous. She now is the mother of a 2-year-old boy.

Last November, hoping to get a jump-start on learning Spanish, Engel and her boyfriend, Eric Dixon, took their son, Mars, to Guatemala. For a week they lived with a host family on the edge of Lake Atitlan. Even without much shared language, the two families enjoyed each other's company, Engel said.

Part of the impulse behind supper surfing, she said, was to find a way in her present circumstances to capture the joy and discovery of travel without having to stray so far from her home turf.

In her first Craigslist post, though her Spanish remained rudimentary, she requested that her host be a Spanish speaker.

::

Not everyone who came upon Engel's post understood its big-hearted intent. Some assumed it was written by a kook.

"SO, we should open our homes and our pocketbooks to people we have never met," railed one person, who then raised the prospect of murderers, robbers and perverts. "Good gag, dude, but I do not think that including homeless people in my own home is a good or productive idea. I have a list of soup kitchens that will allow you to eat every day so you do not have to beg for food."

Candon Farias' reaction was very different.

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