I’ve been thinking a lot about communal meals and eating lately. Partly because it’s the holiday season and there are more opportunities for large group meals than usual. And partly because I’ve realized that the older I get, the fewer opportunities I have to do so.
College might be the pinnacle of communal eating culture. With long dining hall tables, massive student group parties and reunions, and “tables for 18” at birthday bashes, it’s often hard to be alone in college. I regularly found myself craving solitary time through a solo drive or trip downtown. When I graduated and moved out east, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I would rarely again have to coordinate a dozen people’s schedules at once for a weekend activity.
Of course now I’m in just the opposite. New York City is a city of independent souls. They say it’s the easiest place to be lonely in a crowd. I think this is due in part to the cramped quarters we stow ourselves inside. What starts as a squished two-bedroom converted into a 3-bedroom living situation with 2 roommates one day morphs into a two-bedroom with only one spouse or partner.
Impromptu Sunday morning eggs and toast with six people (three roommates + boyfriends/girlfriends) have become bagel and coffee runs for two. And as I’ve changed jobs, over time, the cafeteria style aspect of one company’s lunch culture has turned into a “grab and go” style meal or sometimes a one-on-one business lunch. Given how infrequently my schedule overlaps with my husband’s, we’re lucky if we have three meals a week together. I eat alone a lot.
To be clear, I kind of enjoy this. Simply being out alone doesn’t mean I’m not social; it means only that I have nobody else’s schedule to manage. No other expectations to meet. Given the freneticism of my day job (a never ending exercise in many-stakeholder coordination), this is often a welcome moment of detox or solace for me.
But it means I’m pretty out of practice in the art of communal eating. I cook maybe twice a year (and it’s always a novelty) and we are rarely invited to others’ homes who have a table large enough to comfortably seat 6–8 total people.
Holidays are lovely exceptions to this rule. To me, the tradition of routine is less important than the inclusion of as many people as possible. My favorite holiday memories are the ones where our table included a hodgepodge mix of friends, family, coworkers with nowhere to go, and acquaintances who soon become friends. And weekend like this do make me a little nostalgic for those more classic communal eating moments of my life.
But I also can’t help but consider the obvious: How something so natural to humans like social eating has become more of an exception than a rule, at least for me. It’s hard to tell if this is good, bad, or neutral, but it’s an interesting observation I always come to around this time of the year. So no matter where you are or who you are with this weekend (and throughout the holiday season), I hope you take a minute to enjoy your group. It’s probably pretty special.