“Let us break bread together on our knees.” I remember Mom’s soprano filling the apartment with melody.
The lyrics are branded on my heart, and I’m reminded of three principles spawned from eating with family and friends. Gratitude. Service. Healing.
Gratitude for having access to food no matter how humble. Service in preparing food to share with others. The Healing that comes with sharing prayers, laughter, and companionship.
When I allow myself to feel the sadness that can come from eating alone ─ a consequence of the pandemic lockdown and my being medically unvaccinated ─ I recognize that sharing a meal is fundamental to self-nurturing.
I don’t remember the exact holiday. Some 50 years ago, at Passover, Rosh Hashana, or a Friday evening Shabbat, I sat across from my Jewish hosts. I knew nothing about Judaism except for what they explained about Kosher meals. Nineteen years old, Black and, most definitely raised Baptist, I nevertheless felt an intimacy with my new friends. We had mutual history: slavery, oppression, and escape from bondage. I relaxed into the comfort of being welcomed and learning about a new culture. I felt…nurtured and accepted. But I also nurtured and accepted them when I agreed to share a meal ─ “break bread” ─ with people I barely knew.
Recently, I came upon an article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull entitled “How America Lost Dinner.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/10/work-its-whats-for-dinner/599770/ )
Mull outlines the path taken to our fast food, take-out culture and how we’ve become a society where so many of us are accustomed to eating alone. Family dinners, it seems, have been relegated to the back burner of American life. At first, I was reactive, thinking, “Well! That’s not my experience.”
Reaction instead of response is always a misstep.
By the time I finished reading, I was responding to Mull’s analysis that “By all indications, Americans want to cook and eat together.” Agreed. I rarely feel bad when I’m sharing mealtimes with others.
I grew up in a family that bonded when eating together. Maybe it’s because each of us contributed to the preparation of a meal. A task might not be pleasant, but it contributed to the health and joy of the meal. Yes, I said it. Joy. There was nothing like Daddy rolling from his chair onto the floor to exaggeratedly crawl away from the Thanksgiving table because the meal was so good and filling. Of course, once on all fours, he became a horse. There were plenty of siblings and cousins around to take advantage of his back.
My father liked to fish, bringing home perch or shad or whatever unlucky vertebrate took hold of his line that day. Cleaning fish taught me a kind of focus in the kitchen. Mom was always nearby watching. If I grabbed them the wrong way, the scales would prick my fingers.
“No. Do it this way!”
And I would do it as she instructed. When the fish’s body was smooth enough to run my hand along both sides without getting caught on the scales, I was ready for the nasty part ─ gutting. Sometimes, there was roe, a delicacy that, to this day, I will not eat. Call it caviar if you want.
The grossest part was the beheading. Looking into the blank eyes of a lifeless creature was my personal science fiction movie. With vacant eyes staring, it seemed, at me, I looked the other way as I severed the head from the body. And there, my friends, is another delicacy I will not touch ─ fish heads in any dish whatsoever.
We did not fillet our fish. I remember only too vividly my mother reaching into a child’s throat to remove a spiky bone. She may at times have resented motherhood, but she would not let us die.
We blessed the food. We ate the food. The fried fish, accompanied by biscuits, collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy was well worth the trauma of the cleaning. In those moments of blessing, intimacy filled the space. If Daddy was home, we’d have spirited discussions about what was going on in the world. Assassinations ─ Gandhi. Malcolm X. President Kennedy. Civil Rights. Daddy shared some important wisdom: “Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” To this day, I hear his voice in my head as I meet all kinds of folk.
The pandemic has caused many of us to reevaluate and reprioritize our values and forced folks to slow down and acknowledge ─ positively or negatively ─ the people and communities surrounding them. For me, ironically, the lockdown highlighted the absence of cooking for folks and sharing a meal. I delighted in self-examination and sharing my time with the food writings of Ruth Teichl, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Edna Lewis and the delightful food adventures of Peter Mayle. I truly loved the stillness and nature’s rejuvenation and protection of the animals. However, there was something missing. I know it takes time to plan, shop, and prepare meals. But there is a huge ripple of love in the heart when serving others ─ that love is serving myself.
I was in a large vegetarian kitchen of an ashram. There were maybe fifteen of us or more. We were engaged in various stages of preparing the meal for a holiday celebration. Some were kneading bread, others chopping fruit and vegetables; a huge caldron of soup was being stirred and tofu “turkey” artistically prepared. The enthusiasm in preparing a meal to serve so many people ─ literally a few hundred ─ filled the room with ─ you got it ─ Joy. It was joy that came with gratitude for the chance to serve and for the personal satisfaction that comes with feeding others. Nurturing for them, nurturing for me.
Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I lived in a house with a woman who lived in filth. I didn’t know this at first. When I went to check out the house, it was immaculate, but by the third week, the truth had revealed itself with the dog poop in the front yard that was left to dry on flagstone plates. The flies and stench irritated the neighbors who told me that it had been an ongoing problem. The laundry basement reeked of a cat litter box. My housemate was either unwilling or unable to help with kitchen and bathroom duties on a regular basis. I had been duped.
In a phone call with a clergyman, I whined, “Is Philadelphia hell?” He was kind; he chuckled, and gave me practical advice. Meditation, prayer, and finding someplace to volunteer. This made me feel better, and I began volunteering at a grocery coop where my job was ─ wait for it ─ weighing cuts of cheese and slicing bread. I was not homeless. I was not hopeless. My search for a new home began.
I ate in my room with the door closed, and in the days that followed, I consulted a psychic who told me: “Your housemate has unhealed trauma. People who live in filth have unhealed trauma.” I could hear Daddy’s voice again.
“Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” Lordy. What a mess.
Shortly after that call, I found some compassion, ordered pizza, and we ate together. Tensions began to dissolve, and I found my own apartment.
“Breaking bread opens people up. If you get in the habit of this as a family, you can talk about anything.”
My friend Tina said this to me almost 20 years ago. She and her husband had an ironclad commitment ─ which they keep to this day ─ to family dinners. At that time, they had eaten with the children every single day for 15 years. And I want to say that her children have become the most grounded, healthy, loving adults I know. Healthy traditions give birth to healthy families. Healthy families spawn unity. Unity is what we need in these miraculous, challenging, and eventful times.