The dining experience

Dining and food have always played an important role in my life, especially as I grew up. There was a definite routine to meals in my parents’ house: lunch at 12 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m. When I was young, if I was home, I didn’t consider meals as an event I chose to attend: they were simply something that happened, like waking up in the morning and going to bed at night (as I got older, all of those started to seem very optional, turning routine into hassle). When I woke up for school, my dad would always be waiting in the kitchen, ready to make me whatever I wanted for breakfast. Eating at restaurants with family and friends was always exceptional (and still is), and equally special dinners at home were not uncommon.

I have very fond memories of our favorite Japanese restaurant, where I would get my favorite dish, juicy steak soaking in sweet teriyaki sauce (and bites of sushi from the plates of my generous companions), and of extra special trips to Baskin Robbins for candy-topped ice cream after dinner. Both were wonderful from the moment we decided to go until we arrived back home satisfied and stuffed, and the food was merely a facilitator.

From a very young age, the wonderful potential of dining together was instilled in my mind, even if, at the time, I didn’t realize it went beyond teriyaki sauce and gummy bears. I felt it was something special, something not to be interrupted or corrupted. But it wasn’t until I read a passage my dad wrote that it really clicked:

[A]s anyone who knows me should know full well, my relationship to the “chamber” of communal dining—home, restaurant, as a guest in an other’s home, formal or informal, long and slow and multi-course or just a quick slap-dash salad or sandwich, banana or carrot stick—is one of the most important aspects of my entire relationship to life. Eating together has a relevance that is almost too vast, deep and influential to even attempt to explain. I place a tremendous value and amount of energy on the feast, the dining experience, the Benediction of Objective Communion. I did when I was a child, but was quite completely unaware of the unerring accuracy of my instinct, and do now with a bit more intelligence and consciousness and a great deal more sorrow and even heartbreak when such a vital element of life is misunderstood, ignored or completely missed, especially by those who should know better.

He always tried to create these spaces, whether at the breakfast table or a five-star restaurant. Even when the cancer meant he was no longer able to indulge in the food, he continued to treat family and friends to extravagant culinary experiences, sipping his juice while we all dug in. It was his way to cope — even if his ability to enjoy food was ruined, his ability to enjoy dining was not.

Roger Ebert, who after surgery for thyroid cancer lost the ability to speak and eat, writes of the dining experience in his memoir:

What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

My dad coped by creating the experience for others; Ebert copes by writing. But both provide a sober reminder of the importance and potential of the eating experience; of eating together; of the “‘chamber’ of communal dining”, as my dad called it. When the right food, the right people and the right environment come together, something special happens, something that no other combination creates in the same way. It’s something that everyone can cherish and remember and endeavor to create. Before — whether by cancer or simply time — it’s too late.

Read more on Life, Writing.