Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Table Matters

We are what we eat.
This is true.
But what if the case can be made that we are how we eat?
What if the manner in which we address a meal, speaks volumes about who we really are?

My father is a man of order and principle. In the decades that I have known him and during the countless meals we have shared, I have never, ever observed the food items on his dinner plate touching one another. He is methodical in his consumption and rarely engages in lengthy dialogue during a meal. He is the kind of person who eats to live, rather than one who lives to eat. He approaches each meal as one would a necessary task. Provide him with the right tools, and he will get the job done. He is a kind, generous man who would give you the shirt off his back and on a good day, the butter pecan ice cream from his personalized bowl, but I caution you: never serve this man soup without a proper soup spoon, and more importantly, never, ever, put spinach in his mashed potatoes.

Recently, during an impromptu gathering at my home, as I listened to casual dinner conversation, I watched him eat.
His manner is slow and purposeful. As he works his way through each portion of his meal, he does not overindulge. His body language says nothing about his gastronomic experience. His plate leaves the table as clean as it once arrived there.
I sat and pondered these thoughts for a moment and then turned my attention to my mother.

There is not so much an order to my mother’s plate as there is a motivation. She embraces each dish, whether simple side or significant entrĂ©e, as an old friend—all are welcome to join the party. There are no foods in need of segregation, no foods too outlandish for inclusion. She approaches her meal in the same manner she approaches life—with open arms. Her pace is hurried, yet deliberate. She enjoys the sensory experience a good meal offers. She engages in lighthearted dinner conversation and enjoys lingering at table, after the meal.

My father: Purposeful, disciplined, focused.
My mother: Sociable, lovable, joyful.

The mental impact of these observations forced me to turn my attention to my own eating habits and the habits of those closest to me.

The marathon pace at which I tackle a meal has always caused me to wonder if at some time, in my very long ago past, we ran out of food. Was I in the practice of inhaling my meals simply because I was afraid of losing them? Perhaps I blocked a tragic memory and alas, I could blame someone else for my overindulgent nature.
My siblings assure me that although we were a large family, meals were plentiful and readily available (memory be damned).
I also question my motivation for garnishing a meal with an herb or condiment that I am not particularly fond of, for the sake of presentation. Additionally, I will eat said garnish to preserve the sanctity of the recipe (if the recipe calls for cilantro damn it, then I'm using cilantro). Neuroses, perhaps?

In a moment of enlightenment I realized that the quickened pace at which I enjoy a meal is due solely to the fact that I need to get to dessert as quickly as possible.
Impatience has always been my weakness.
And admittedly, I am neurotic.

A coincidence, you argue? Perhaps.
But we are not finished here.

My husband enjoys most foods. He will taste anything once. By all accounts, he is an easygoing guy. When his meal is presented he will take a moment to observe the contents and will predictably eat in ascending order of likability—he always saves the best for last. This applies not only to his food, but to his wardrobe (case in point—the paint-stained, holey t-shirt that finds its way into the wash day after day, while new, still-tagged clothing waits patiently in his dresser drawers), and to his verbal distribution of news--he’ll always gives the bad news first.
He is a fan of leftovers, a charter member of the “Clean Plate Club,” and he is practical in all manners of food preservation.
Not surprisingly, my husband is conservative and at times even frugal. He supports a life lived by a “waste not, want not” philosophy.
While he enjoys the likes of barbecued chicken and ribs, he avoids any foods that are labor intensive (it is likely that he will read this, so I dare not use the term lazy).
Unless it’s Super Bowl Sunday, he will avoid a chicken wing in the same manner that he will avoid spousal conflict—he is not a bone-picker, literally or figuratively speaking.

And while we’re on the subject of chicken bones, I recall a photo that sits patiently waiting for its rightful place in a tome of categorized, accessorized pages recounting a happy, young life headed towards the promise of a bright future.
It is a picture of my daughter at six years old, seated at a very large dining table, alone.
She is wearing a dinner napkin fashioned as a bib. A placemat rests before her. She is holding what appears to be a fraction of one fried chicken leg. A half-empty, red striped carton sits beside her. It appears that at least half of the table’s perimeter is covered with the telltale particles of a savory meal; fried chicken bits, corn nibbles, crumpled napkins, the remnants of two buttermilk biscuits, a broken plastic fork and a plate with only a small memory of mashed potatoes and gravy. And she is smiling.
This photo speaks volumes beyond the boundaries of food.
My daughter, now a young woman tackles life with the same reckless abandon she afforded that meal. She lives in every moment, appreciating the fullness of every experience. She is passionate and intense, yet somehow unfazed by the messes
so often left by spontaneous decisions. She is happy.

I need no convincing that there is a connection between the way we approach a meal and the way we approach everyday life.
One need not be told that I am an impatient, if not neurotic, dessert-loving woman.
They need only observe my meal and the manner in which it is consumed to know me.

I have shared many a meal in my not so long lifetime and likely, spent just as much time people-watching.
Believe me, I could go on forever in support of my claim. But I will not burden you.
I assure you however, that for every person I know and love, one may observe indicators in their mealtime behavior that speaks of their true personalities.

Why not spend some time quietly observing those who join you at the table. Imagine for a moment that you have not yet made their acquaintance.
Based on your observations, would your assessment be correct?

If nothing else, it makes for interesting thought and great dinner conversation.
Because, what happens at the table, matters.

Until Next Time,
Share Your Food
Make Life Delicious


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