Food, Thoughts

The Ritual of a Meal

Mu husband and I went to a Japanese restaurant back in June to celebrate my birthday.  We anticipated a happy return to a restaurant that had completely charmed us in our last visit.  That Friday night was busy with plenty of families and groups filling both the teppanyaki tables and the seats at the sushi bar.  We were still game to eat there, even though we understood that service might take a while to get us our food.

As we took our seats at the sushi bar, a family with three kids came in.  The youngest, a toddler who was probably no older than three, saw the pyrotechnics happening at another table as the chef began his fiery routine.  The poor boy started screaming at the top of his lungs.  Not excited or happy screaming–fearful, get-me-out-of-here screaming which lasted, to varying degrees, for the next hour.

There were plenty of critical things I could have said to the parents (& did inside the confines of my head) who showed no sign of comforting the child or even taking them somewhere nearby to calm them down.  They sat there: looking at menus or talking to their other children.  I looked around to see if anyone else was irritated by the unending screaming.  For the most part, it appeared that the other diners were distracted by their smartphones, by the huge flat screen mounted over the bar or their own children (who had their own smartphones or portable DVD players).

I think it was that night that I finally started to understand how a meal could be a spectacle, instead of a ritual.  I think back now to the rules that my mom imposed on our own family dinners.  My mom often scolded me for how haphazardly I had set the table.  I always had to wash my hands if I had been outside.  Everyone had to be seated before we could eat.  No reading was allowed.  While we weren’t as bad as the Burnhams in American Beauty, there were some parallels.  But, I think, all of these idiosyncratic rules were not just a gesture to politeness and gentility.  They were a recognition that a meal with others could be something special.

That night back in June, I felt sad that the environment of the restaurant was chaotic and disconnected, due to the influence of the diners and their distractions.  The teppanyaki tables were the most popular sections, but, while the diners waited for their water to be refilled or for their food to start flying over flames, they stared at glowing screens or ignored the people around them.  The huge flat screen above the bar was proof enough that customers were not expected to want to interact with their waiters and hosts.

While my husband and I were able to carve out a little quiet niche for our own meal, I was torn between feeling gloomy about the oblivious diners around me and the happiness that this awesome little restaurant was doing great business.  I hadn’t really thought much more about that night until recently.  Kurt & I traveled to another restaurant two counties over for review.  The restaurant was part of a B&B located in a small rural town on the Northern Neck of Virginia.  As a result, we didn’t expect much.

Instead, we not only had a fantastic meal but we were swept off our feet by the people we met.  The executive chef not only greeted us when we walked in, she stopped by the table occasionally to tell us about her inspiration for the dishes we were eating.  Our waitress proudly proclaimed herself “a career waitress” and talked to us about a variety of food-related topics each time she came to check on us.  Even the diners that were sitting near us told us what they had eaten and how they had found the restaurant.

I’m making it sound like we were bombarded with chatty, extroverted folks, but that’s really not the case, I’m just compressing for description’s sake.  All of this happened over a 2-hour-or-more time period, so there was plenty of time to not only have these nice little conversations but to linger over our meal, look at the dusky September landscape outside the window, eavesdrop on other diners, and to tease one another.

I know that not every meal is supposed to be this ideal, nearly esoteric experience.  But the contrast between the two meals showed me that it is never a bad idea to put some thought and consideration into how you spend the time.  The concept seems difficult to undertake, especially given how rushed & busy our everyday lives may seem.  Maybe those rules that my mom had all those years ago was just one way to keep that hurried pace of life at bay.

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2 thoughts on “The Ritual of a Meal”

  1. It’s too bad the parents of the screaming toddler didn’t care enough about their child to remedy the situation. Sad.

    1. I was wondering why they would stay when their kid was clearly freaked out. Hopefully it wasn’t too traumatic!

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