This past winter I began lighting candles each night just before our small family of three sat down to dinner. It changed the way we eat. Even now in the long-lit days of a northern spring, a reminder to take a deep breath and lower our voices before lifting our forks does the same as the candles that once lit our table.
For years we slid into our chairs, fresh from email, homework, or feeding the dogs. We arrived at vaguely different times and jumped up and down to hastily get one more thing we'd forgotten. We continued, without pause even for breath, the conversations started in the kitchen or between the top and bottom of the staircase as we rushed to dole out the food. No, we never have screens at, or even near, our dinner. Yes, a good five out of seven nights we eat together as a family at the dining table. The food is usually homemade, carefully planned, and tuned into a whole globe of culinary traditions. But our last meal of the day was still missing something.
Then we met a family who did things a little differently.
At their table, I discovered mamaliga was more than mere polenta, and I savored salty-sour pickled vegetables delivered straight from Romania to their quiet kitchen out on the edge of England. When their Eastern Orthodox religious calendar called on the faithful to go dairy-free and meatless, I became a believer in the glory of canned mackerel (especially if served with a sweet tomato relish and a homemade European loaf). I tasted how frugal onions stewed with chickpeas transformed a simple, sustaining dish into something soul-stirring. But even with amazing meals finished off with homemade plum brandy and steaming cups of linden flower tea, this was not the point. They began each meal, standing at the table, with a prayer, first in English, then Romanian, and sometimes, Greek or Russian as well. And only then did everyone sit down.
That's what a ritual like lighting candles does. This is different, it says. Pay attention. Change. Bring your best self to the table.
After that quiet moment of thanks, there was plenty of energy as children filled their plates and jostled for the best chair. But the pause gave that energy a different direction. In the contemporary parlance of the mindfulness movement, we might call it calm centeredness. That offering of gratitude acted as a boundary between the cares of the world and the act of commensality.
Our family isn't religious, so I contemplated other "gateways" we might build from who we were before dinner to who we wanted to be during. That's what a ritual like lighting candles does. This is different, it says. Pay attention. Change. Bring your best self to the table. (Drama is crowded with meals gone wrong because the guests didn't bring their best selves. Elsewhere, I've written about how playwrights in the age of Shakespeare milked this idea for all it was worth.)
For a little more than a year now, this column has explored how rituals change food for the body into food for the soul. Now, in the renewing energy of spring, I'm moving on to other projects. But what I hope readers have taken away from these articles is inspiration to turn mere sustenance into comfort, connection, remembrance, history, and even innovation. Food rituals are where we take "conscious living" to the table. Which is just a fancy way of saying that we should pay attention to what we're doing. Instead of scarfing because we are hungry, in rituals like breaking bread together under the sun, preserving food for the future, and sharing cake loaded with meaning, we slow down, prepare, contemplate, celebrate. And we say a little about who we are.
Eating consciously by enacting the rituals particular to your people — whoever those people might be — or inventing your own rituals shouldn't be rigid and exacting. (Take a lesson from my obligation to Christmas cookies.) And don't feel pressured by unreflective clichés. Eating together every night as a family: good. Everything else: bad. For thousands of years there have been many ways to eat communally without families. Just ask monks, Oxbridge scholars, or anyone at Google. And there are many ways to eat alone that are just as conscious, just as fulfilling. A cup of tea and a piece of toast in the bath, your own table at the coffee shop with a good book and your favourite drink, and even a microwave dinner in front of a movie all have their place.
Anthropologist Arlette Martinez, who works on food and intercultural communication, explained that a ritual is "a special meal that is planned, periodic, predictable, and loaded with meaning." Rituals give us structure and something to count on when too much seems uncertain. I eat dinner in bed on Fridays, use the good cloth napkins for hearty Sunday suppers, and as soon as the nights dip toward freezing, I fire up the fondue pot. Because I live in England, whenever anyone crosses our threshold, I offer them a cup of tea. (This is obligatory.) At the first rustle of leaves in autumn, I instinctively turn a pumpkin into soup. I make fruit tarts when strawberries are in glut and I drink Pimm's when Wimbledon is on. And I never say no to a glass of Champagne when something needs to be celebrated. These just begin to scratch the surface.
As I take my leave from the Kitchn table, I'll invite you now to take over the conversation. What rituals make your life taste better and help you feel more connected?