Since March of 2020, government press conferences have been broadcast into our homes, at intervals ranging from about once every two weeks to every couple of months, when the situation was more stable. Often, when gathering around our TVs to hear what our government had in store for us, there would always be one measure that would strike a deeper wound than the others: the closure or bars, cafes and restaurants.
What is it about meals that is so important to our social and personal wellbeing?
I explored this question further during my research traineeship at Leiden University, where I researched religious food rituals and how church communities maintained them during the pandemic. The research began with lots of reading about the origin and importance of food rituals.
However we put it, humans have been gathering and bonding around food rituals since the beginning of civilisation. Because of this, there is something about food rituals that goes well beyond the items of food themselves. We maybe did not think much of this, until we were forced to reproduce our food-related customs between the four walls of our home, in the same place where we sleep, study and work.
Most of us are perfectly capable of recreating a coffee, a glass of wine or a special dish at home. Yet there is something distinctly punishing about not being able to do go out to consume food and beverages in an outside environment. Worse than remote working, worse than closing gyms, worse than that tedious Click & Collect system, that’s turned shopping from a pleasant walk down the high street into a brief, sterile errand that can’t exceed its 5-minute slot.
The first thing I found was missing when I tried to have Zoom-dinner parties was conviviality. The presence (or lack) of other diners around us is an inseparable aspect from the action of eating. Conviviality presupposes that sharing a source of physical nourishment allows for us to simultaneously share social, cultural and relational nourishment. Around the table, we share stories, memories, ideas, opinions, fears and any other aspect of our daily life. We use meals to catch up with friends, to reconnect with family and to get to know someone new. It is of course possible to share some of this on a videocall, but a lot of unspoken information and body language is lost in the online medium.
The upshot of hosting mealtime on videocalls, however, is that the internet can and should bring us closer to those who otherwise might now join us in a crowded restaurant, be it because of geographical distance or because of other impairments. During my research in the religious domain, I discovered that many parishes adopted new accessibility measures such as subtitles in their online rituals, and smaller worship groups for those who preferred them. This experience has taught community leaders to look out for opportunities (digital or otherwise) to dismantle barriers that hinder participation in societal customs.
The other thing that makes shared mealtime special is locality: food production and consumption is a blueprint for the social relations in a given area, because it displayed the communal effort that it took to bring food from nature to the table of the consumers. Focusing on those individuals who made it possible for us to eat a certain food, or drink a certain drink, makes us mindful of the community to which we belong, and is an activity that I, like many have engaged in since being stuck at home during the pandemic. From the factory workers who packaged supermarket produce thousands of miles away, to the family that owns the market stall who lives a few kilometres outside the city, to the small neighbourhood restaurant with faithful employees and customers, to the student living next door who delivers warm packages of food from the restaurant to costumers on his bike every night.
The realisation that my food rituals that I so sorely miss (be they a meal, a coffee or a glass of wine) are dependant on the people around me, brought me (and others like me) to adopt new consumption habits, such as weekly trips to farmer’s markets and frequent orders from local, family-run restaurants. This has reconnected consumers with the communal labour that goes into delivering food to fellow community members. Food therefore is no longer a commodity, it is a reflection of our sense of belonging. Buying and eating local food strengthens community ties, lessens the enormous profit of corporations and ultimately, reminds us that we can find community all around us, even when we can’t see it because we’re stuck at home.
So what can we take away from this second winter of strict bans on lunches, dinners, drinks, breakfasts, brunches and shopping sprees?
Those who have been finding internet-friendly alternatives to meal-centred gatherings can surely tell us that there have been enormous benefits to the online food rituals in abolishing barriers for some, and we’ve got plenty of time now to think how to incorporate those advancements into offline meetings as well. We’ve learned to see people for who they are in their own homes, with their own vulnerabilities, and we’ve been able to reflect on how to embrace those vulnerabilities for when we all go back to “normal”.
Furthermore, in a world where every single good is one click away with next day delivery, the closure of restaurants, cafes and bars has reminded us that our surroundings can offer a lot, both in terms of social and in physical nutrition, if only we are patient enough to not want everything at once.