We need food to live. This is a basic fact of human existence. To eat is to live. When we share food, when we share a meal, we are in some essential way, sharing life. We offer and receive the very substance of life. And it is not just our own life that food nurtures, but our common, communal life, the life of families, communities, and cultures. When we want to connect with others, we seldom ask them to meet us in a quiet place where we can speak undisturbed, but rather say, “Let’s do lunch!” We connect with others around this basic need. When we want to share our lives with others, we eat together.
A shared meal is a doorway into our common life, as family and friends, as guests and hosts, as a community. We commune with one another and the forces of life that sustain us. The community-forming power of potlucks and collective kitchens, community gardens and farmer’s markets, Thanksgiving dinner and ordinary family suppers, all call us out of isolation and into communion. Food brings us together.
My prayer for our culture is for more of us to restore conviviality to our habits of cooking and eating. Convivial—a word that signifies shared life—does not describe rushed meals eaten alone between work and soccer and errands and school. Nor does it describe any meal that is delivered to you through your car window. Convenience is huge in our hurried, overscheduled lives. In the name of convenience, food now has more to do with chemistry and mass production than community, relations or even pleasure. Americans have come to think of food only in its component parts—calories and carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fats. But food is not just for the body, a substance made up of nutrients that we ingest for the proper functioning of the mechanism of our body. Food is also for the mind and spirit and forming bonds with others. Convenience in preparing meals has trumped delight and pleasure in cooking and consuming food. In all of this, something has been lost. There is no soul, no enchantment, in such fare.
What has been lost can be restored when couples and families spend time in the kitchen cooking together. Having the children help plan, prepare, cook and serve, meals or parts of meals shows them they are valued, they are valued members of your household. Gardening together, shopping together at the farmers’ market, discovering what to do with all the produce in your CSA share, learning how to can and preserve, indeed, simply learning new culinary skills—all invite us in to a celebratory relationship with food, the laborers who grow and produce it, the Earth, and each other.
Some of us, including those of us without spouses or children, are even experimenting with leisurely meals. Savoring each bite with intention and mindfulness, enjoying the tastes and smells and the company, if there is company, can be a joyful way to eat a meal. The art of dining, eating with style and manners, can create an atmosphere of attention and contemplation to our meals.
With care and imagination, all of our meals can be sacred, convivial occasions. Whether we dine alone or with others, every meal can be an occasion to nurture the spirit. The way we set the table, what plates and napkins we use, lighting candles or placing a vase of fresh cut flowers on the table, all create an ambiance that allows the soul to know that its needs are being addressed along with those of the stomach. A pause, a moment before the meal is served, invites us to simply be mindful, thankful. Whether a grace or a blessing is said aloud, whether the pause is filled with words or expectant silence, recognition that life is being celebrated comes.
Even at the everyday table, where the regular plates and cutlery are used, are those not the times when members of the same household gather and tell the story of their day? Isn’t the common life of our families gathered around the kitchen table, the supper table, the everyday meals, that fills our hunger for belonging as well as filling the hunger of our bodies? In my household growing up, attendance at dinner nightly was not optional. We had to be at the dinner table at six o’clock no matter what. Among other things, this practice instilled in me a sense of stability, belonging, relationship, and love.
I have often asked my mother for recipes, recipes of things she made when I was growing up that I needed as an adult to comfort me, to call up the memory of who I am. With the recipes come memories of my origins, stories about the old country, family narratives. Mixed in with the techniques of how to cook these recipes are stories of my grandmothers, their lives and kitchens, their hardships and triumphs. Even when I made those recipes and ate them alone, my home fragrant with the culinary smells of my ancestors, I felt connected, in communion with my family and my ethnic heritage.
My wish for all of us this Thanksgiving and in the days ahead, is for conviviality to grace our meals, for all of our meals to become occasions for giving thanks, for mindful eating, for everyday feasts. May we slow down enough to make each meal an expression of the best of who we are, as individuals, as families and households. May our dining together and alone be a source of comfort, wholeness and peace for ourselves, for our communities, and for our planet. May each meal be a celebration, every mouthful a Eucharistic feast, every bite a taste of the world to come, a world in which hunger and want, injustice and injury are no more.