I’m starting off with the big picture here, so bear with me!
As a culture, we like to forget our dependencies, yet we still observe small reverences to the sacred act of eating food with another person: a first date usually means dinner, death or a birth signals the community to bring meals to the bereaved/new parents, and weddings are celebrated with multi-course reception.
Breaking bread in community is an illustration of our common physical weakness and our common spiritual weakness–our need of others. In some eastern cultures, this reality is honored by tradition, as a guest who breaks bread with his host is then treated as under the protection of the household. Food binds us together.
As food is intrinsically tied to place, to seasons (time), and our human dependencies, the need to make a meal becomes the catalyst for humans to be dependent on each other and tied to a physical place. Usually, the act of preparing and eating a meal draws you away from the computer and internal monologues, and forces you into the physical reality of your geographic location, your neighborhood, and your personal community.
Here’s an example of what I mean: last night, I made Korean Barbecue for dinner. Now, we live in a basement apartment and don’t have any place for a grill. The last time I tried to cook a steak indoors in my cast iron frying pan, the smoke detector serenaded us and everyone was grumpy (and I didn’t even burn anything). So this time, I planned ahead.
I made this based off of my grandmother’s recipe, substituting what I had in the house and adding this and that to balance the flavors. This recipe is one that her kids remember with great fondness, and she gave it to me in a recipe book she made up of family recipes (complete with stories prefacing most of them) for my twelfth birthday. And most recently, we made it in her honor at our family memorial dinner when she passed away in May.
This has to marinate overnight, and I hoped to grill it up for dinner on Sunday evening. Our pastor lives down the street from us, and he and his wife offered us the use of their grill anytime we needed it. So we headed down the street with tongs and the pan of meat, and chatted with this kind couple while the meat cooked. Kevin had a beer, and we met some of their family who was visiting.
When we got home, I stuck the steak in the warming drawer, and started cooking the rice and pot stickers while Kevin biked down to the grocery store for broccoli. While he was there, he ran into a new friend and her son, and they chatted and made plans for us to have them over for dinner one night.
When he got back, I finished cooking, and we sat down to eat. He took a picture of the food, posted it on Facebook, and later I ended up having a conversation with my younger brother about the recipe which turned into a good talk about life in general.
And Kevin and I had a lovely dinner together. Which turned into canoodling while watching Some Stupid TV Show.
And so, just making dinner together turned into a series of interactions with people in our community and families. Now, granted not every dinner is a conversation piece (I like mac ‘n’ cheese a lot), but it’s when your need for food drives you to interact with other people (even if it’s just the lady at the checkout in the grocery store or the waiter at the bistro…or fast food joint). You may not have much to talk about and it may be more of a transaction than an interaction. Yet it’s still an evidence that we can’t quite digitize our need for food and our need for community infrastructure.
Modern food methods and experiences tend to create either an imitation of a real community or family meal (restaurants!) or reduces food to a caricature of the real thing (frozen dinners, box mix desserts, Velveeta, margarine?!). It’s efficient for us and sometimes cheap, but the existence of these things and the cultural dominance of cheap, pre-prepared foods reflects a pivotal shift in our value system.
Another reflection of this shift is how we have ceased to use physical language (metaphors derived from nature) and are now dependent on mechanical or industrial metaphors for our linguistic rubrik. We develop things, we don’t grow them. We download or upload, instead of plant or store. I’m a productive worker, not someone with stamina. Try listening for this in your everyday language–our society has become industrial, rather than agricultural, and our language reflects that.
Similarly, the family and household has stopped being a place of creation and production, and has instead become a place where we consume products and store ourselves and our stuff in between work days. Our lives have become defined by industrial efficiencies rather than natural cycles and relationships. We perform tasks in a process in our cubicles, we eat fast food, we relate over text and the internet. The value of our physical bodies is secondary to the worth of efficiency (which probably contributes to our national problem of poor body image and crippling physical self-consciousness).
I know we’ve heard our fair share of lectures about the detrimental effect on the family from not eating dinners together, but it’s worth reiterating: unless you take time to let yourself be human and hungry with other hungry humans, you isolate yourself and ignore the basic needs of body and soul to eat in community. We are a displaced and existentially challenged people for a reason: we have forgotten that we are mortals and we have sanitized human processes [ah-ha! mechanical language] until there is nothing human left about them.
(Which is why sex seems to be the most significant thing for our generation–it’s the last place we are able to be simply physical beings and need another person.)
And so, this is my apologetic for cooking and eating your own food: this process of mealtime is the most natural place for community to grow. You can have your slick blog community and guest posts and a thousand Twitter followers, but it will not feed your soul quite so well as eating spaghetti and garlic bread you made yourself with your spouse, family, or friends. This is coming from me, the introverted nerd who sometimes really dislikes people. You need community. I need community. Food is normal and good and somewhat of a social equalizer, and sharing food with people makes you belong somewhere real. Even if it’s Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese in your dorm room with your roommates.