Why Civilization Rests on that Roast

by Dwight Furrow

Roast chickenFood is part of nearly every aspect of social life. Both our biological families and the families we choose coalesce around food. We converse with friends over coffee, tea, a snack or a glass of wine. Going to lunch or dinner with friends is the dominant mode of socializing in modern life. For many families much of their communication takes place around the kitchen table. We share our tables with friends and family at celebrations where food takes on the ritual meanings of shared values or shared history. Even at funerals, at least at the wake, food is often served.

The other sense modalities do not lend themselves so easily to social life. We seldom think of visual experiences as paradigmatic ways of spending time with others. Viewing a sunset or a work of art in solitude can be wonderful, the solitude enhancing the experience. With modern technology we listen to music through ear buds designed to lock out the rest of the world. Although listening to music is sometimes a social occasion, only rarely is sociality essential to the experience. Touch is a shared social experience only in the most intimate of relationships. Taste, by contrast, is the sense modality that, as a matter of practice, is intimately tied to social life. Although we can and do eat alone, we only rarely contrive to do so, and few would consider it an enhancement.

The reason for this intimate connection between food and socializing is not hard to discern. Given the time involved in, and the necessity of, gathering, preparing and consuming food, no other activity plays such a prominent role in giving form to daily life. We divide up the day according to when and how we eat. Thus, only the most solitary lives avoid implicating others in food-related activity. But more importantly, when we eat and drink, time slows, the rhythms of the workday must decelerate, making it an ideal time for socializing. (Europeans, historically, have understood this well. Many Americans seem to resent the loss of those precious moments of “productivity”).

Food and wine are so intimately entwined with sociality that they are more than an instrument through which we pursue social relations—they have come to symbolize social relations. It is hard to think about the act of eating without visualizing a table with others present, especially if eating includes certain foods such as roasts, casseroles, and pies that are designed to feed multitudes.

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