“Food, glorious food!
What wouldn’t we give for
that extra bit more –
that’s all we live for.
Why should we be fated to
do nothing but brood
So go the lyrics to the song from Lionel Bart’s musical version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It’s not the tune I had in mind when, as a budding criminal genius of about 9 or 10 en route to the sitting room, I ‘accidentally’ dropped my spaghetti bolognese on the hall floor. “Oh no!” I cried, dripping, but crucially, empty plate in one hand, other hand pinned tragically to forehead a la Mary Pickford. “I shall have to have Weetabix. How sad.” And if my beleaguered mother cited the starving Ethiopians and what they wouldn’t give for a good meal, and if I felt what I wouldn’t give for same, I simply thought, “well, they’re certainly welcome to the bolognese.”
By the time I was touring Eastern Europe with a theatre company twenty years later, the fussy palate of my childhood had improved sufficiently not to be put off by the culinary offerings of the former Soviet Bloc. Goulash that once would have seen me gagging and spluttering dramatically with popping eyeballs was now consumed without the merest flicker of a suspicious eyebrow. That said, I was still considered by one of the other actors to be a suitably conservative guide when it came to mealtime. He would go through the charade of perusing the menu and enquire about one thing or another but ultimately would wait until I ordered at which point he would quickly utter “I’ll have what he’s having.”
I’m still a picky eater and I sometimes dread an invitation to dinner as it means the inevitable sharing of the ‘by-the-way’ list of forbidden foods. Once that’s out of the way I have come to expect the little dance that happens when the host gently yet sincerely proffers a forkful of food accompanied by “are you sure you won’t have some? Have you tried it recently?” I internally roll my eyes and wonder if the almost 35 years that have passed since I was 5 have been but a Confucian illusion or worse, that I am stuck in Nietzsche’s eternal cycle of existence, the acknowledgement and endurance of which means I am on the way to becoming an Ubermensch. Super! Anyway, it takes a little resolve not to have a tantrum on the spot or threaten to hold my breath until I get ice cream but I am willing to forego such silliness if only because I genuinely love sitting down to have food with other people.
The cliched phrase that is used is ‘to break bread with someone’ but however naff or hackneyed that may sound, it is a deeply pleasurable experience to share food with others, especially when any sort of an effort has been made. And of course it transcends culture and language and class and whatever other obstacles that would keep you and your dining companions apart. I’m not talking about restaurants here, I’m talking about going into someone’s home or having people sit round your own table where food, drink and conversation flow effortlessly. That lovely moment when everyone is poised with a certain graciousness before you say ‘bon app’ or ‘dig in’ or ‘help yourselves’. Having a friend or family member pour you a drink. Hearing the sounds and seeing the signs of appreciation and enjoyment. Anticipating something delicious being put in front of you. Placing at the heart of the table a thoughtfully produced dish or an unexpected dessert. Savouring an after dinner drink or coffee. Moving from the table to resting places more accommodating of full bellies and stressed belts. Revelling in that unmistakable feeling of – fullness.
That is an experience that, with a little thought and attention, essentially takes care of itself. I found myself reflecting on this recently after commenting that a friend ‘had a lot on their plate’. In fact I had been wondering if one friend knew of a mutual friend’s difficult circumstances and I concluded that perhaps they might not as a result of their own overloaded plate. The two friends in question had very different reasons to be preoccupied, one very positive and exciting, the other quite sad and troubling. Thinking about it, it struck me how easy it is to miss someone else’s pain. Specifically, the pain of people we otherwise assume we are close to. We become so focused on what’s on our own plate that we have no idea what is happening elsewhere.
With my typical tendency to analogise idioms in a very literal way, I couldn’t help thinking of the dinner party scenario. Imagine someone sitting at the table who, once their meal was in front of them, did not raise their head once from their food throughout the evening. Imagine that same person with a meal so immense that when you and the other guests had retired to the couches for postprandial discussion, they were still fully committed to their task of seemingly endless consumption. Not in a grotesque, gluttonous way but from absolute necessity, from a compulsion to survive. From an inability not to be immersed in their meal and their meal alone. Surely, if they were a guest in your home you would have engaged them long before the meal was over, long before the other guests were wittering over Armagnac and the events of the day. There is no way you would have abandoned them to their onerous task. Nor, were the shoe on the other foot, would you have ignored your guests to better focus on getting through the stacks of stodge before you. Happy with that basic premise? Good. So, why do we do it in real life?
Is it because we have felt like the neglected guest? Is it because when our own plate has been impossibly overloaded we have been all too aware of the unrung phone, the unasked question, the unextended hand? Does our attitude become less charitable and slightly churlish? ‘I sucked it up, now they can.’ And with that we withdraw into a just-below-the-surface sulk, lacquered on top with that peculiarly adult veneer of decorum and respectability. That perceived isolation, the conviction of being rebuffed or plainly ignored, festers quietly as another reason to be resentful, bitter and jaded. Those feelings in turn allow us indulge our inclination for judgement and intolerance which we naturally heap on those who ‘weren’t there for us when it counted’. Our conclusion? You eat your meal, I’ll eat mine. And don’t anybody dare say ‘bon app‘!
But. The thing is. None of us can presume attention. That is to say, there is no entitlement to an audience. No right to a sympathetic ear. It is not something we are either owed or guaranteed. And, this is particularly important, especially when we don’t ask for it. In the nakedness of our neuroses we become convinced that other people can see right through us and therefore they should know when we are in need. They should know when we can’t handle what’s on our plate. They should know when we would appreciate an extra pair of hands fully equipped with the latest meal-mountain demolishing cutlery. They should just know.
I have learned that it doesn’t work like that.
People are not necessarily selfish and uncaring but they may lack a bit of empathy or insight or perception. They, like you, could just be preoccupied with their own stuff. Sometimes, the people you think should care, the ones you are convinced should be doing more, sometimes these people need a prod. Sometimes you may need to explicitly state what is on your plate and how it is making you feel and what type and how much help you would like. When you’ve exhausted those options and the help or interest you crave is still not forthcoming, you might have to consider that you’re asking the wrong people to care.
Life isn’t a dinner party and we’re under no obligation to be nice to each other but humour me before I go and pretend it is. Consider your various friends and family members and imagine all of them at a dinner you have prepared with love and care. As you cast your gaze around the assembly who is talking and sharing and laughing? Whose voices can you hear? Whose eyes are sparkling? Who is unselfconscious and effusive? And who hasn’t yet lifted their head, or met someone else’s eyes, or raised a glass in good cheer? Whose plates are full and whose are empty? And how’s your own plate looking?
Maybe we all need to break a bit more bread. Together.