Forkways #2: Eating Alone
“Jack Goody has likened eating alone to defecating in public (1982:306) because of the absence of the social in meeting essentially biological needs.”
Eugene Cooper (1986) Chinese Table Manners: You Are How You Eat. Human Organization: Summer 1986, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 179-184.
For those of us that have ever been single, these words add a whole new level of shame to the practice is eating a microwave dinner standing at the kitchen counter. There is solace in those moments, at times. But equal amount of shame. Maybe the first three times it is liberating, and the next three hundred is confirmation of body shame because we as humans allow ourselves to feel hunger. In American culture, consumption of food continues to be a sinful act.
Food for humans ends up having so many functions. It is fuel, it is a way to socialized, it is a way to create an identity, and it is a tool to identify others. Eating carries with it a large amount of social and cultural significance which can be easy to overlook. Goody’s suggestion that eating alone is similar to defecating in public is connecting with the overlooked aspects of food consumption. For Goody, the consumption of food for fuel is lacking some of the essential components of eating.
For most Americans there can be a challenge transforming the sinful act of eating into a social experience. There are so many opportunities during consumption to make connections and experience something new. Even though Goody's comment is overstated, what can we learn from it?
There is a social quality to food that we become disconnect from if we eat alone. In the book Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food the author states, “We talk about food to both craft identities and construct social worlds." This is the case not just for talking about food, but talking around food. Food acts as a facilitator for social exchange. Eating can become the common ground, or neutral territory for two parties to meet. Though, as Cooper expressed, that is also not always the case.
The cultural structure of manner can feel invisible, but as Eugene Copper exemplified in “Chinese Table Manners,” these can vary drastically from one culture to another. Shared meals allow for us to learn the structures and rituals of our food consumption and can also be an interesting and important window into the culture of others.