VizEat: Europe's 'social dining network' meets American Thanksgiving

Modern pilgrims: Thanks to a new app, travelers in the U.S. can be invited to a home-cooked family gathering on Football Day.

Story highlights

  • VizEat is a dining site that links travelers up with local hosts for meals
  • Some hosts are offering Thanksgiving meals

(CNN)A traditional Thanksgiving.

Is there really such a thing anymore?
    Even back when the Pilgrims were doing it, some rather untraditional-ish sounding turkey day fare by today's standards was reportedly served -- including lobster, eel and venison -- while potatoes (not yet on the scene) and cranberry sauce weren't.
    Four hundred years, one tuber bonanza and a billion Butterballs later, the nation's historic harvest celebration has baked, braised and beer-brined its way into a perpetually movable feast of Thanksgiving tweaking and re-thinking.
    Is there any last bastion of unalterable Thanksgiving tradition left?
    Only, one might assume, the immutable "family and friends" guest list.
    Occasionally stretched to the odd friend-of-a-friend, uncle-who's-not-really-an-uncle-or-a-friend, lonely neighbor or clingy salesman named Del from "Planes, Trains & Automobiles."
    But that's it.
    Who would open their dining room to virtually everyone else -- to a wide world of strangers -- on Thanksgiving Day?
    Or on any other day for that matter?
    Conversely, who would enter a total stranger's home for dinner, let alone Thanksgiving?
    Answer: A growing number of hosts and guests finding each other on VizEat.com.

    Airbnb for meals

    Stuffing is one Thanksgiving tradition. VizEat is trying to start another.
    VizEat is a social dining platform launched in 2014 in France.
    It's designed to help travelers (primarily to Europe) experience authentic meals cooked by -- and shared with -- locals in their homes.
    Registered hosts post meals online for a flat price.
    Guests scroll through, choose one that looks good and book it.
    A unique, home-cooked dining experience happens on an agreed upon date at the host's place.
    Sort of an Airbnb -- for meals.
    At launch, the site kicked off with just three European cities -- Paris, Milan, Berlin -- and a smattering of pioneer hosts who were mainly friends of the site's two French founders.
    While listings are still concentrated in Europe, VizEat now connects more than 35,000 travelers and 10,000 local hosts in more than 65 nations, according to the site's Paris-based co-founder Camille Rumani.
    Including in the United States, where registered hosts from Hartford to Honolulu can now post an enchanting meal for guests (a.k.a. strangers from abroad), including the meal-of-meals on the fourth Thursday in November.
    "If you don't know any Americans, it's pretty hard to get invited to Thanksgiving, so this gives travelers or newcomers an opportunity to experience one of the biggest meals of the year -- or any other unique meal during the year," says 26-year-old Rumani, who envisaged the idea of a social dining platform while working abroad in China and sharing many enjoyable meals with locals in their homes.
    "It's always about more than the food.
    "It's about the whole experience -- getting inside other cultures and making real personal connections," says Rumani. "One of the very best places to do that I think has always been 'around the table.' It's the original social network."

    Shared experience

    Pumpkin pie isn't a necessity, but for many Americans, Thanksgiving dinner wouldn't be complete without it.
    Current VizEat posts in the United States range from a Braised Short Rib Celebration in New York (hosted by a private chef named Danushka) to paella with Patricia in Salt Lake City.
    There's a soul food feast in Memphis with Alex and family for up to 10 guests, and a Deconstructed Peking Duck Confit experience with Patrick in Boston.
    The "Best Cheeseburger Ever"?
    That'd be at Deniz's place in Clayton, California.
    Guests pay the listed meal fee on the site, plus a 15% VizEat surcharge.
    Hosts (who list and register for free) aren't just there to serve guests but to eat with them.
    "It's a real shared, wonderful experience," says Natalie de Souza, who co-hosts a VizEat-listing with her business partner Stacey Grant.
    Next up for the two New York-based real estate professionals is the big one -- a Caribbean-esque Thanksgiving feast on Thursday at de Souza's Brooklyn home with family, friends and as-yet-unfamiliar guests arriving from near and far.
    "Right now, we have a French couple from Bordeaux coming, some students from Compiègne and a New Englander will be joining us as well," says de Souza, who grew up in Trinidad before moving to New York.
    The meal, fittingly entitled "Thanksgiving Tale of Two-Feasts," is a creole mishmash of American and Caribbean classics.
    Turkey with trimmings, cornbread and stuffing, sweet potato. Trinidadian macaroni pie, cornmeal pastelles and callaloo (a leafy, savory island side dish).
    Kids are welcome.
    Sorrel mojitos and spiked eggnog will be served.
    The guest list maxes out at 20.
    Otherwise, the more the merrier.

    Leaving as friends

    "I think the real essence of Thanksgiving is to broaden the meaning of the word family," de Souza says.
    "Traveling and hosting travelers," she adds, "always teaches us that people are more alike than they are different."
    VizEat's Camille Rumani agrees.
    "We hear it all the time from happy guests -- 'We came as strangers and left like we were at home with old friends,'" she says. "That's my favorite comment on VizEat, and it's the real beauty of sitting around a table in someone's home."
    Virtually anyone's home.
    "It brings people together," says Rumani.
    Who could turn away an age old Thanksgiving tradition like that?