There's more to sustenance than calories

I confess.

My keyboard, I can see as I type this, has food in the cracks between the letters — crumbs from yesterday’s lunch, pieces of popcorn from a midnight snack a few days ago as we put the paper together for publication.

It is more common now for working Americans to eat their mid-day meals at their desks, alone, rather than at a table with friends or family. Gone are the days when it was usual for farmers, their families, and workers to gather for a mid-day meal. How often these days do workers and schoolchildren return home for mid-day lunches?

A study last fall by the Hartman Group, a marketing research firm specializing in consumer culture, found that, for Americans, eating alone is fast becoming the “new norm”: 46 percent of all adult eating occasions, up from 44 percent in 2010, are undertaken alone.

The Hartman Group’s report, “Eating Alone: The Food Marketer’s Hidden Opportunity,” states that the traditional sit-down family meal has been replaced with “a constantly shifting assortment of snacking and eating alone occasions…combining eating with other tasks as the need for productivity compels us to move forward.”

The report goes on, “In just the past few years, our ethnographers, working within households all across America, have witnessed the rapidly developing habit among consumers to eat alone even when dining with others — much of this brought about by mobile technology proliferations.”

While this may present splendid marketing opportunities for pre-packaged fare to feed every diner’s need — the report cites “isms” from paleoism to veganism — much has been lost.

We felt this loss sharply last week as The Enterprise was involved in three wonderful around-the-table dining experiences. We were reminded of our childhood dining table, always set with candles and flowers, where far-ranging talk — sometimes rollicking with laughter, sometimes heated with argument — went late into the night, as the candles burned down and wax spattered on the table.

Last Monday evening, our Hilltown reporter, Marcello Iaia, covered a monthly community supper, hosted by volunteers from three churches in the Helderberg Hilltowns. He described carefully prepared food — “trays of rolls and bowls of stew, with large glistening nests of coleslaw on the tables.”

But as important as the food, or more so, is this: “The room purred with conversation.”

About half of the 70 diners would otherwise have been eating alone. “The point of it is more fellowship than the food,” said Rev. Robert Hoffman who started the project. “We want this to be a time where people can be together in fellowship with one another.”

Some of the diners might not be able to afford to eat out without the donation-only meal, but, as one patron put it: “It’s hard to know who’s in that position because everybody seems to be the same.”

How wonderful, to come together as equals. Mace Porter remembered an era when “everybody was poor.” He said, “I used to plow roads years ago. Every house we went by, we stopped, and we’d have coffee and cake. The good old days.”

We understand those days aren’t coming back, that most households are no longer economic units, that men and women both largely work outside the home and send their children and elders out for day care.

But isn’t it grand that the threads of community can still be woven together at such meals?

“It’s nice because you get away and you talk to people,” said Ted Willsey at the Hilltown dinner. “And you don’t worry about yourself so much. People always worry about themselves.”

Maybe that’s because we spend so much time alone.

Gloria Towle-Hilt is someone who worries about others more than herself. For 25 years, she has worked at, and is now the organizer of, a hot-lunch program for residents of Albany’s South End. She was recognized this month as a Jefferson Awards medalist for her community service.

Last Tuesday, 224 people dined at what Towle-Hilt calls the “welcome table.” They sat at round tables, listening to music, and talking as they ate. The meals are made more special by touches the volunteers bring — from centerpieces to placemats. And the neighbors have shown their appreciation by pitching in, too.

Over the years, Towle-Hilt, who lives in Guilderland, has ferried children from church groups and from the school where she taught to wait on tables at the center. “Kids feel so empowered when they make a difference,” she said. The kids connected with people they otherwise would never have known. One of the homeless men was fond of lecturing the children on the importance of staying in school, Towle-Hilt recalled.

She told her students, “You don’t have to travel far to see another culture. Seven miles down the road is another world.”

And so it is. But the chasm is ever-widening between that world and ours, between those who are homeless or poor and those who are secure or well off.

We commend Towle-Hilt for bridging that gap and bringing others along; the future of our society depends on it. And what better place to connect than over a hearty meal?

A meal eaten in the company of others — even people who start out as strangers — gives us a way to get to know and understand one another. On Friday, I was honored to be invited to Voorheesville’s high school for a lunch program that puts students with particular career interests together with professionals in that field.

As a weekly newspaper editor, I was invited along with a television news anchor and a public relations specialist, to talk to high school kids who were interested in journalism. We sat at elegantly set tables — the napkins folded like fans — and got to talk about our passions. I have to admit I was too busy talking to eat much of the three-course meal — we rotated from table to table for salad, lasagna, and delicious chocolate cake.

Talking around a table led to a frank give-and-take, very different than answering questions from a dais as a member of a panel.

People shared their hopes and dreams — being a sportswriter, writing a novel — more as equals because we were sitting around a table, sharing a meal. One young woman asked me what it was like to write an obituary. Because I was dining with her, my answer was more involved and more sincere — more from the heart — than had I been on a dais.

What is it about eating together that connects and sustains us?

In 1980, Claude Fischler presented a paper, “Anthropologie de l’alimentation,” on food habits and social change, that said, “The human omnivore uses his freedom of choice in a most peculiar way. One of his specific features is that he is amazingly particular — even finicky — about his food. Man feeds not only on proteins, fats, carbohydrates, but also on symbols, myths, fantasies.”

Fischler, who is co-director of the Edgar Morin Centre in Paris, similar to America’s National Institutes of Health, since publishing the groundbreaking Omnivore, has focused on various cultural attitudes towards food.

Historically, he says, human beings have eaten together habitually and ritually —commensally — which is useful for allocating shares of food, forming identity, and weaving social fabric together.

Fischler sees the act of eating alone as negating humanity. That’s why community meals, whether in the rural Helderberg Hilltowns or inner-city Albany, are so important; the gathering together celebrates and reinforces our humanity.

In surveying thousands of people in the United States and Europe, Fischler has found that Americans are at the opposite end of the spectrum as the French. Americans’ identities as disparate individuals means we see food as a sum of individual nutrients that can be customized to fit specific health needs and tastes. Americans, Fischler found, value choice in our diets above almost all else; nutrition is the main purpose of eating.

For many Europeans, nutrition is a secondary benefit as social pleasures and the joy of life dominate discussions about eating. North Americans, Fishler found, spend less than an hour each day eating far larger portions than Europeans while the French spend more than two hours each day enjoying “food experience.”

Obesity concerns aside, Fischler concludes that, when we grasp food without thinking, without ritual, there is a loss of meaning.

Let’s restore meaning to our mealtimes. Let’s follow the examples set by Rev. Hoffman in the Hilltowns, Gloria Towle-Hilt in Albany’s South End, and the Voorheesville school district.

If you’re reading this with a sandwich in one hand, put down your paper or shut off your video screen. Find a person. Sit across from that person at a table and talk. Break your bread. Share your meal.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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