Say Grace Before Eating

December 11, 2011

I had lunch last Tuesday at a place called Baan Thai. This is not the one in Waltham, Mass, or the fancy wine bar in San Francisco. It’s not the Baan Thai in Indiana, the Baan Thai in Newport, VT or the Baan Thai in Leavenworth, KS. I can’t speak for the others, but the Baan Thai on Broadway in southwest Portland is one of those shacky kind of places where you go up a flight of stairs and then you find yourself in what was once the living room or dining room of a house that’s been half-heartedly converted to commercial use. The tongue-and-groove on the walls has been painted pink and there are a few random posters of vaguely Asian locales to get you in mood. Lots of these places are pretty good, even when they are run by Phillipinos rather than Thai. The mere fact that there is a Thai restaurant in Leavenworth, KS is pretty clear evidence that the world has changed, but that’s not what I wanted to blog about.

What set me to thinking was the two guys sitting at opposite sides of the table across from me. These are two relatively big men dressed neatly but quite unobtrusively in dark trousers and still wearing the storm jackets that seem to be ubiquitous in Portland about this time of the year. It was pretty chilly in Portland on Tuesday, and the fog really penetrates the bones. But this is all atmospheric mumbo jumbo so far, because what’s notable about these guys is that they are not speaking a word to one another. Both of them have their heads bowed as if they are peering intently into their cupped hands resting on the table below. And I’m noticing that this intense silence is going on for a long time. Of course, I’m waiting on my order of Pad Kee Moa and maybe I’m just impatient, but I’m inclined to think that the meditative trance behavior I was observing continued for five or ten minutes. Maybe more.

It’s pretty rare to see people saying grace in a public restaurant these days, though there are parts of the lower Mid-West and South where family groups make a pretentious display of it. Two 30-ish males in a West Coast eatery is not typical, I assure you. But there are many things to recommend this activity, even if you are not religious in a conventional sense. It’s prudent to pause a bit before eating and put yourself in a more placid and receptive frame of mind. Helps the digestion. But there’s also an issue of moral character at stake. Recognizing that you are among the lucky ones every time you sit down to another meal… Taking note of the fact that someone has taken the time to prepare a plate of food for you, even if you do intend to pay them for it… Thinking for a moment that someone grew the rice, the soya, the cabbage, the chilies, that someone made the tofu and that countless others were part of the chain that got all these things down to Broadway on Dec. 6, 2011… Putting all this into a social context that celebrates the way that we depend upon the kindness of strangers…

And then there are all the ways in which natural piety involves acknowledging the place of humanity in a larger world. It’s good to be aware that in eating a meal, one is participating in a pretty fundamental dependence relationship. Without earth, sunshine and water, there would be no Pad Kee Moa. All the ingredients in my Pad Kee Moa are living organisms, and even if I happened to leave off the chicken or pork last Tuesday, there were animals—worms, field mice and voles—that perished when the soya was cultivated. Getting the stuff to Portland (not to mention getting me to Portland) also imposed a burden on living things. There is an Inuit saying sometimes attributed to the shaman Aua that goes like this:

The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.

That captures it, I think, and reminding oneself of that just before taking a meal should develop the natural piety that I am talking about. Just watching the two guys across from me has adjusted my own attitude, and when my Pad Kee Moa finally arrives, I’m more in the mood to relish it not only for its gustatory qualities, but in a spirit of thankfulness and humility. And as we sit in the hammock between Thanksgiving and Christmas feasting celebrations, when better to remind ourselves of our vulnerability and interconnectedness?

Warm thoughts swirling through my head as the heat from the chilies in the Pad Kee Moa warms my innards, I glance back to the table where the two gentlemen have barely moved. I notice a faint glow coming from the cupped hands of the man whose back is mostly turned toward me. A prayer candle. Now this is truly extreme!

But in fact, both of them were staring at smart phones.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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