When I was a kid, I wouldn't come too close to my sandwich unless the crusts were carefully trimmed away (looking back, I can't believe my mom did this). I was also a through-and-through Oreo dunker: they just didn't taste the same dry out of the box, and I never enjoyed them even half as much as when dunked carefully in milk. These rituals made me feel like the food actually tasted better. But did they really?
Last week there was a post on The New York Times' health blog exploring the link that ritual and food enjoyment share, and I found it fascinating. I come from a family that is big on traditions and ritual, even when they don't make any sense (lottery tickets right before Christmas dinner?) — but sharing and enjoying food just wouldn't be the same without them. And I'm not the only one that feels this way.
The piece began by defining what exactly comprises a ritual. Many researchers came to the collective conclusion that rituals are essentially behaviors that are not necessarily relevant to the act that follows. Think of singing and candles before a birthday cake, for example. So many of us may take part in the ritual and, for me anyway, it sure makes the cake taste even better than if I were just to whip it up on an average Thursday.
Writer Catherine Saint Louis concludes that "rituals like these may actually enhance how much people savor what they eat or drink." At the very least, these rituals raise the level of expectation of a meal or a treat and pique a certain amount of interest. These two things alone make a moment, meal or dish more special — even if it's just a sandwich with the crusts cut off, or cookies eaten just right. (And actually, there is a scientific reason why cookies dunked in milk taste better, so maybe that at least isn't all due to the ritual!)
(Images: Flickr user Edward licensed for use under Creative Commons)