Food for thought: The importance of savoring mealtimes

Grant Swonk

We miss eating together. But eating together, it must be noted, is much more than people collectively digesting food for energy. The experience of eating food is just as much about the sociocultural and psychological accoutrements with which food is associated as it is about the physical food itself.

From January till mid-March of 2020, I studied abroad in Barcelona, a city nestled in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia and, to my gustatory luck, a hotbed for both experienced chefs and younger ones looking to prove their culinary chops. And, even luckier for me, the family that hosted me was gracious enough to treat me every week to a meal at an eatery that they, as self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the Barcelona culinary scene, considered one of the most satisfying dining experiences that the city had to offer.

No sooner had I finished the last dish of the first meal to which I was treated — when it comes to lunch in Barcelona, the standard is prix fixe — than I became aware of food’s importance to the Catalan people. Teresa and Ignacio, my host dad and mom, indexed dishes in their minds not primarily by tastes but by the holistic way in which they are enjoyed. The sociocultural narratives that underpin the ingredients, the equipment, and methods used in preparing them contextualized the food’s effects on their palates. Veal fillets stewed in white-mushroom sauce (fricandó), charred sweet onions dipped in romesco sauce (calçots), and fresh, whole milk, whey-extracted cheese dribbled with honey, usually accompanied by walnuts (mel i mató), served as physical signifiers that evoked in Teresa and Ignacio’s minds stories of Catalan history and politics that their parents and grandparents had conveyed to them.

For three and a half months, I came to understand food as the most accessible thoroughfare through which I could find admission into Catalonia’s cultural narratives. I was one to enjoy the ride. But when my omnivorous foray into Catalan culture came to an abrupt halt thanks to the pandemic’s spread across Europe, I wasn’t prepared for the difference in how I would experience food stateside. The eating of food whose ingredients, preparation, and consumption were enmeshed in rich, deep webs of cultural significance gave way to eating that was, by comparison, decontextualized and lacking dimension. 

And this might indicate what I think is a chief difference of value: Whereas the Catalonians sought to honor the sociocultural depth of their cuisine and maximize the well-being of the people enjoying it, we here in the States, generally speaking, emphasize and maximize the efficiency of getting calories into the gullet to sustain a go-go-go, market-driven lifestyle. Notably, I noticed this difference of value play out in how the meal schedule determines the workday for many Catalonians. Catalonians work around when they eat, much unlike many fast-paced U.S. metropolitan areas where Americans eat around when they work.

Fast forward to last fall, when we returned to campus not knowing what to expect from the dining experience. It was like a breath of fresh air to once again eat with people whom I hadn’t seen since the fall semester of the previous year, before I went abroad.

Then came the deep chill that is still upon us. The constraints of the weather — many students were happy about the wasps disappearing from our plates, less so about the cold that seeped through their layers and chilled their food — incentivized the inevitable transition from eating outdoors to indoors; the pod system’s physical constraint became a reality. Whereas before pods were a group of friends with whom one could choose to eat, they have become a group of people with whom one has to eat.

Not to betray the positive effect of getting to know your podmates better, there are psychological downsides to the new cold-weather dining arrangement in which one eats with the same people for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the more-than-occasional mid-afternoon Lee’s snack, one of which is less apparent than others. What we lost were not necessarily the connections with people to whom we directly reached out to grab meals — we still do that, on occasion — but those accessory, indirect relations that were associated with eating in a place where others also ate: the passing by of a person who took the same introductory philosophy course as you did during your first semester followed by the mandatory, “Hey, long time, no see — remember what wacky Professor X said about bizarre Y idea?”; the subtle yet invigorating mutual glance at a crush you’ve had since sophomore spring (but to whom you’d never have the courage to reach out until senior spring, perhaps); the warm greetings of a dining staff member whose geniality is a revitalizing force in a fast-paced, type-A place like Williams. We’ve lost the relations that sit at the outside of our social networks, ones that we usually overlook and undervalue but whose importance can’t be overstated. Without them, we lose the dynamism of moving through existence, the feeling that we can have an undetermined, serendipitous encounter that could permanently change our lives.

As I’ve come to reflect on what’s important about what and how we eat, I’m reminded of an experience with which, as Williams students, we are all too familiar, at least pre-pandemic. Imagine yourself having dinner at either Driscoll or Mission, sitting with your pals in a nook, exchanging stories from the day, eating food ever more slowly because you know that as soon as you finish, academic pressures will once again sweep you away into hours of studying. The toxically productive among us might designate this a weakness of will, even a defect of character — the classic instance of Williams dining hall procrastination — yet I’m more inclined to think that this phenomenon is merely indicative of what we most hunger for when we sit down to eat and, specific to this moment, of what the pandemic has starved us.

As an empty stomach hankers for nutrition, so our minds just as much crave the deep webs of significance in which our food resides and what those interludes of procrastination offer us: The fulfillment of our inner desire to break bread together and share common experiences, to build up amongst our respective subjective realities a joint reality within which we can freely and productively express to one another our deep-seated thoughts, preferences, and desires. Catalonians understand this; their lunches (la comida) usually extend for 2 hours, from 2 to 4 p.m., with friends exchanging feelings, ideas, and stories to no end in sight.

Let’s look forward to the day when we can procrastinate together, when we can commune around food, creating shared realities through whose mediums we can fully express our minds’ idiosyncrasies to each other — to have our humanity reflected back at ourselves. Let’s not just look forward to this day, nor just recognize its importance. Let’s seize it once it’s here and never let go.

Grant Swonk ’21 is a philosophy major and cognitive science concentrator from Rancho Santa Margarita, CA.