A Venezuelan friend once told me that in South American cultures it’s considered rude to eat while standing up. The rationale is that eating is not something that you do in a rush, but something that should be done with friends and family, taking time to enjoy both the food and the company.
I’ve always liked that tradition, even wished that it could be transferred to Australia. I like the idea that eating should be about more than just food. In fact, I don’t just like the idea, I can relate it directly to my own experience.
Often in my life, food has played not much more than a fuel role. I’ve put no effort into it, just eating when I’m hungry, whatever will fill me up. I still do it often. It’s not helped by the fact that for most of my adult life I’ve had very little (or no) money. Or that looking after myself is not always my number one priority. But it’s also a symptom of the culture I’ve grown up in.
The way I related to food very distinctly changed once I started going to a weekly community dinner (People’s Kitchen in Sydney). All of a sudden I saw new potential for food. This food (that was rescued from supermarket dumpsters) could be made into delicious meals, but it also could be a reason for people to come and hang out, a way to meet new people, a gathering point for a community, and a way to introduce new people into that community. Because not only could you come and eat together, but you could also become part of the creation process, by helping cook, clean or sharing food. I started making the hour long train trip as often as I could from Miranda to Newtown just for a meal, often carrying with me big bags full of food.
Since then I have always been involved in regular community meals. From People’s Kitchen, to Food Not Bombs in different cities, to Melbourne’s wonderful Credo Cafe. And always jumped at the opportunity to help prepare food – for parties, festivals, activist gatherings, at friends houses. I still eat appallingly when I’m on my own, filling myself with carbs for energy fixes, being too lazy to cook and eating way too much dumpstered junk food. But that’s another story.
This communal aspect of eating, the same thing that got me excited about food, has been a staple of human community for millenniums. Before modern farming technology, when life revolved more around getting enough to eat, the process was also a communal one: from the growing of food, to hunting, grinding flour, cooking, sharing traditional recipes, eating together. Look at the developing world (for example South America) – it’s still the same.
And yet in our western world, this aspect is being lost. People live and eat alone; eat out rather than preparing food; eat drive thru fast food without even stopping to enjoy it; work through lunch at their job or otherwise prioritise productivity over meal breaks; families eat in front of the tv without even looking at each other.
It’s no wonder eating disorders and over-eating are everywhere – we’ve lost touch with one of the most important ingredients of our food. From the beginning the way we eat is out of balance. Maybe we are addicted to fatty and sugary foods because we don’t realise the void we are trying to fill with them. Maybe it’s not a diet we need, it’s to eat well, but do it the way we’re meant to.
I don’t often hear people admit it, but there’s a real sadness that comes from eating alone. I think that something innate inside of us knows that we are not fuelled by bread alone. The thing is, that rather than address this, it’s so easy to just turn on the tv, go out and buy fast food. Anything to distract us.
Well I personally don’t want to be distracted. I want to make a conscious effort to reclaim the communal aspect of eating. I’m still doing community meals every week (find your local Food Not Bombs! Get involved!), but now I want to really step things up. At the Brisbane Catholic Worker house, we believe every meal should be a community meal.
It was said of Dorothy Day and the original New York Catholic Worker house that there was always a pot of stew on the boil and always enough for anyone who came in. This is what we’re aiming for. And not only that, but I’ll also add that there’s always a spare apron for anyone who wants to help cook, and definitely always a full sink of dishes too.
If you’re in Brisbane, come around for a meal. We’re at 99 Stephens Rd, South Brisbane. No bookings required. If you’re not, that’s ok. Make your own community meals. Invite your friends over. Invite strangers. Sit down to eat. Ask the South Americans, they know that eating is not the same thing as truly being fed.