Dining with Friends: An Allegory

Yes, this is my actual copy of The Joy of Cooking, snapped today, specifically for this post.


Say you are hungry. And say you want to eat with a friend. There are several ways to accomplish that goal. The quickest and easiest is to call a friend and arrange to meet at some fast food joint. It’s pretty effortless, really. Everybody eats, and if the first friend is unavailable, you can just keep calling until you find someone who is free. You’ll get to the selected venue, and the noise level will be loud, the lights will be bright, and the colors will be garish. You’ll be looking at that neon menu board from the time you hit the door, and you’ll order pre-made food that has been sitting under warming lamps, take it to a table and unwrap it. And maybe at that point, you will have a chance to ask your friend how his morning has been. You most likely won’t pay much attention to the answer, because you are busy thinking about all the things you have to tell your friend about what’s been going on with you since the last time you saw each other. And you’ll be in a hurry, because fast food is something you grab between other, more important, events in your life. You aren’t concentrating on your friend, but on your to-do list.

When you eat fast food, it doesn’t much matter where you go. Your belly will get full, but you won’t be satisfied. Fast food meals are high in the fat, salt, and sugar your body doesn’t need, and low in the nutrients it does. You’re usually thinking about the next meal as you are throwing away the trash from the one you just ate. Still, people gotta eat, and this is quick, cheap, and easy. If you eat three times a day, you can feasibly squeeze in 21 fast food meals with friends in the course of a week.

The second option is a little more complicated. You could know on Monday that you are going to be hungry around six on Wednesday, and call a friend and invite them to a sit-down restaurant. Maybe you shift the day forward or backward a bit if your friend has a previous commitment. Or you choose another friend if your time frame is not flexible. You make a restaurant selection together, based on what you both like to eat. You get there, and the atmosphere is calm, voices are soft, lights are dim. The kitchen is separated from the dining area, so you don’t hear shouted orders or lots of clanging and banging. You get your table, and while you are waiting on the menus you get a chance to take a good look at your friend. You notice if she is relaxed or tense, tired or rested. You ask “how are you?” and actually listen to the response. You order food that is likely freshly prepared for you. The selection isn’t unlimited of course, but since you have chosen the restaurant based on what they offer instead of convenience, you are likely to be quite happy with the dinner. The conversation unfolds with the courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert. Maybe you linger over coffee. You take your time, because this friendly dinner is the last thing on your agenda for the day and you have nowhere else to be until the morning.

You leave this meal not hungry, but more importantly, you are also satisfied. It’s possible that you eat so well that you skip breakfast in the morning. But lingering is a luxury, and most of us have day jobs and other assorted responsibilities. And even though the memory of this meal will last far longer than the memory of the fast food meal, we have to ask ourselves how many times per week can we really afford, in terms of both time and money, to dine like this with a friend? I think three would be pushing it for most of us, and once or twice far more likely.

The third option is a bit more complicated, it takes a bit of planning. You realize on any given day that in the days to come, you are going to be hungry, and you want to eat with a specific friend. You call that friend up and say “Hey, I’d like to do dinner with you next week or the week after. Let’s cook together. We could make a day of it. Do you think that’s doable?” And you pick a date that works for you both. And then you zealously guard that date, both you and your friend. That date is taken, spoken for, sacrosanct. As the time gets closer, the two of you talk about what you want to eat. You anticipate. You look through cookbooks, think about old favorites, maybe decide to try something nether of you have eaten before. You choose something that takes a while to cook, but isn’t overly fussy, so you have plenty of time to talk. And you prepare yourself. Maybe you work late that night before, tying up loose ends so your job isn’t nagging at your mind on the appointed day. You tidy up your place once you get home. Get out the cookware you need so it’s ready to go. You do whatever it takes to ready yourself to be involved in making dinner with your friend. You confer one more time over the menu. You say, “Goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning.”

You wake up in the morning, excited that this is the day. You’ve cleared the calendar and the only thing going on for you are these dinner plans. Shower. Dress. Head over and pick up your friend. And you do make a day of it. You drive downtown and park the car. You take your time, and walking, visit the butcher’s shop for meat, the bakery for the bread, the farmer’s market for fresh vegetables and flowers. Stop at a bistro for tea and a light lunch. And go back to the farmer’s market for the two bottles of wine and several beeswax candles that you forgot the first time. Then the deli for some cheese. And all this time you are talking, catching up. Enjoying the walking, the weather, the talking, each other. Maybe you hold hands. Maybe you don’t.

When you get home, you open the first bottle of wine and pour out two glasses. One of you puts the flowers in water. The other slices the cheese and puts it on a plate. One puts the candles in holders and lights them. And together, you start washing and preparing the vegetables. You season the meat and put it on to cook. Slice the bread. You nibble the cheese, smell the beeswax, sip the wine, look at the flowers, look at each other. And sometime in the doing of all this, the conversation stops being about the news of your life, because you’ve already talked about all that in the morning. You move past sharing events and you start sharing your selves. While the food is cooking, you sit on the sofa with your wine. You ask each other questions, anything, everything. You wait for the answers. You listen. The food smells good, your stomach is rumbling, so you snack on more cheese. Finally dinner is ready. You eat it with another glass of wine. You wash the dishes together, side by side. You smile.

And then the rest of the evening lies before you. Maybe you watch a show you both like, or discuss an author you both enjoy. Or walk down to the beach and watch the surf and count the stars. In the dark, the conversation is even slower, deeper. There are comfortable silences as you sit there on the sand. The trivial stuff is long since uttered, the middle stuff has been aired, and the heart of who you are can finally get out.

This third dinner option takes investment. It costs time, energy, thought, self. It’s not a thing you can pull off at the last minute. You can’t be lazy with it. You have to be intentional. And it’s not really something you can do everyday, because again, we have day jobs and responsibilities. I’m pretty sure you could only pull this off every couple of weeks. Maybe as infrequently as every couple of months. But, you’d feed your belly and your soul, and the memory of the meal would linger. And linger. And linger. In fact, I think the memory of a meal like that would be almost enough to carry you through until the next time you could manage to spend an entire day on dinner.

There are hazards to this third option. A meal like this last one might make you realize what fast food really is. It might even make you unwilling to eat fast food. You might decide that sit-down-restaurant or cook-it-yourself are the only acceptable ways to eat. That could happen. And you’d be healthier for it, physically and spiritually.

Have you figured out yet that I’m not really talking about the food here?

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