7 Sep 2011

Goodwill and happy companionship. And saying thank-you to the chicken.

I meant to take a photo of the roast chicken and vegetables last night but Tony and I were so pleased to be having dinner together that we ploughed on with the carving and serving and talking and it was only when my plate was a smear of jus and breadcrumbs that I remembered.

Tony’s been on a post-guest diet so we haven’t sat down to eat together properly for a little while. We’ve also been fractious with one another, partly due to the wilting humidity when we arrived back in the south of France last week and partly due to the drawn out uncertainty of the house sale as our buyer’s English solicitor requests official attestations for even the air we breathe!

Bread and cheese
Perhaps if we had been sharing a meal each night the fractiousness could have been avoided because mealtimes are the moments when we reconnect. They don’t have to be grand affairs; often they are as simple as bread and cheese. But they are essential to how we act and react healthily with each other and I’ve noticed, over the past 26 years, that any prolonged period of not regularly eating with each other tends to produce a sense of disconnection.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale. Elsa Schiaparelli

When I was young mealtimes did not always involve the whole family. Dad worked shifts at the Steelworks - nights (10 to 6), mornings (6 to 2) or afternoons (2 to 10) - so the five of us only tended to sit down together on his Sundays off. I remember roast chicken and sage and onion stuffing or a topside of beef and yorkshire puddings. Trifle with slices of jam swiss roll set into the strawberry jelly, a layer of yellow Bird’s Custard, topped with tinned Nestle’s cream and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. There’s not a lot of tinned food I prefer to the fresh equivalent but Nestle’s (pronounced, of course, nestle to rhyme with trestle, and never nestlĂ©) tinned cream still does it for me.

A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture, says Robin Fox, the anthropologist. He also talks about the ceremony attached to eating and how the contemporary ease of obtaining food, and the advent of fast food in particular, has resulted in it losing its significance for us:

It's like the American Indians. When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it," says Fox. "That is civilization. It is an act of politeness over food. Fast food has killed this. We have reduced eating to sitting alone and shoveling it in. There is no ceremony in it. Read more.

Ceremony. Unfortunately, the word’s root in the Latin caerimonia (religious worship) doesn’t do it any favours. It evokes a formality and solemnity I don’t associate with the joy of eating with family and friends.

Tony tells the story of attending a Showman’s Guild Ball at Grovesnor House in London when he was 18. He was dating the then President’s daughter and was completely unprepared for the formality of the evening: the Master of Ceremonies, the endless courses and the array of required cutlery fanning out across the white linen tablecloth in front of him. But not being a person to admit defeat, he decided to pick up and use whatever seemed appropriate as each course arrived and felt he was doing quite well until it came to dessert and he ended up eating his Peach Melba with a soup spoon and a fish knife.

So if it’s not ceremony that I want and need in shared meals, what is it? I like Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘goodwill and happy companionship’. And I feel lucky to have shared, and continue to share, my meals with people who are full of goodwill and companionship and for whom food is also a guest at the table.

Iwan walking with his shadow
My great-nephew, Iwan, who is three and a half, recently made a return visit to a family holiday flat in Freshwater East, West Wales.

‘Flat, I have missed you,’ he said to the air and walls when he walked in.

I think that’s the kind of simple and honest ceremony I want to have at meals.

Chicken, you were delicious, so crispy-skinned and tender-fleshed. Thank you.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about forgetting.
  2. Write about a connection that becomes a disconnection.
  3. Write about your father’s work.
  4. Write about a formal event or occasion.
  5. Write about saying, ‘Thank you’.