Food might be an essential part of life, but eating is a much more meaningful and symbolic experience than just the desire to survive.
In cultures across the world, people everywhere participate in daily rituals at meal times, engaging with and enjoying their food in the presence of others. From harvest festivals to the Japanese Tea Ceremony, food and drink have long been communal habits in all walks of life. You only have to glance at Horace Pippin’s ‘Suppertime’ painting from 1940 to see the importance of meals as a daily ritual in African-American life. Elsewhere in Edward Hopper’s ‘Chop Suey’, food is scarce, but the table is very much a social symbol, a place for conversation.
It was during the transition from the 19th to the 20th Century that British houses really developed into the homes we cherish today. On the cusp between the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the middle classes emerged in all their self-made glory, moving away from grand country estates to smaller, more self-sufficient homes. Instead of streams of servants, it was the wife that became the head of the household, cleaning, baking and cooking for her family. ‘Dinner’s ready!’ became a staple cry in the houses of many, and as everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed to their seats, the table was a sacred spot where lives conjoined and memories were made.
Bound together in this much more personal and intimate space, the family became more of a unit, learning and growing with one another in this sanctuary they called home. Mealtimes were a chance to set aside the worries of their individual days and unite through the shared enjoyment of food. Whilst someone passed the bowl of vegetables from one end of the table to the other, the family could relish in one another’s company, engaging in stimulating conversation and connecting over the simple pleasure of a meal.
Yet, as more people disengage from traditional mealtimes and settle for something ‘on the go’, these wonderful, timeworn customs run the risk of dying out. In today’s busy lifestyle, where less attention is put on home-cooked food and family mealtimes, many have lost sight of this much more significant, and enjoyable part, of eating. As we opt to eat at our desks or in front of the television, the table is becoming less central in family life, and in turn, social time with family and friends suffers.
Small and simple swaps can reinstate this sense of occasion we used to have with food. Next time you’re thinking of heading out to a restaurant with friends or eating your meal whilst scrolling your phone, let the warming memories that come from dining at home stop you in your tracks. After a long day at work or school, remember that dinner is an opportunity for the family to reconvene, provide support and relax. Even with friends, it’s important to invite them into your home and share something delicious.
To introduce more mindful eating into your routine, choose to take the best plates out from the cupboard, set the table with care and spend time eating and connecting with the ones you love over a simple meal. Both the company of others and food can have the most transformative effect on the way we feel, so combining the two through shared meal times can be incredibly rewarding. As Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”