From time immemorial, people of every religion have invoked prayers, blessings, and words of gratitude for the food they eat. These days, however, you don't see as many people bowing their heads... certainly not in McDonald's. In giving long, hard thought to the decline of the family meal, and indeed, the decline of community, it occurs to me that the slipping away of ritual may be a cause as well as a symptom. Reinstating some version of grace before meals may be a partial cure.
Grace Is Not A Conventional Ritual
I am not a person of conventional ritual. My rituals tend to be familial and personal. I do, however, give thanks for my food. I am deeply aware that there are many who do not have enough. When a tomato is ripe from the sun, with a somewhat acrid and pungent smell and sweet-acid perfection of flavor, I am grateful. When I find food without pesticides, grown with nature's fertilizers, I give thanks to the conscientious farmers. When a cook has taken the time (or just paid enough attention to quality) to serve me something that has real taste, not simply something fancy, I am delighted.
Teach Children Grace
Children should be taught to stop and savor what they were eating, to take the time to appreciate it rather than to stuff it down as fuel and necessity, a home-served version of fast food. Children raised in such a way will probably not join the overweight, the bulimic, and the anorexic among us. Their greatest risk is that they might turn into little gourmets, and that, I would argue, is a good thing. If children are around while the food is being prepared, doing homework at the kitchen table, they may also learn that cooking is normal and easy. That would be a very good thing.
We Grace Ourselves
The observances of food and table can also lead us to pay attention to the significant social and political questions inherent in what we eat. Food is the single greatest economic and political reality: Ten percent of the population is on food stamps; the hospitality industry is one of America's largest service industries; the production and transportation of food is one of the largest economic activities worldwide. Food is also about the continued health of our planet. So it is that by taking food seriously we can grace our planet and our civilization as well as our own lives.
Grace Is About Style
Grace is more than a ritual; it is an expanding force that reaches out to those around us. Grace is also about style. We talk about "the graces," meaning the arts. We must extend that ideal to gracious living, not in some dated sense of tea gowns, servants, and the right silver, but as expressed in the preparation of food made with a sense of pleasure and a sense of giving. The cook offers health and well-being, a respite from the harried pace of most of our days, and the opportunity to enjoy and pay respect to the recurrent realities of food and one another.