We have to keep eating, so we make eating the occasion for insisting on other things as well—concepts and feelings which are vital for our well-being, but many of them complex, difficult to analyse or understand, and definitely not so easy to concentrate on as food is when we are hungry.
Precisely because we must both eat and keep on eating, human beings have poured enormous effort into making food more than itself, so that it bears manifold meanings beyond its primary purpose of physical nutrition. It becomes an immensely versatile mythic prototype (modern economists, for example, love to assure us that our longing to “consume” goods in general, like our need to eat, is insatiable), an art form, a medium for commercial exchange and social interaction, the source for an intricate panoply of distinguishing marks of class and nationhood.(Pg.2)
““Bread,” in western European languages, often means food in general; in our tradition, bread is basic. This is true even in our own day, when people eat far less bread than they used to, and when bread often comes to us from a factory, bleached, squishy, ready-cut (so much for “breaking bread”), wrapped in plastic or cellophane. Yet we still expect to have bread on hand at every meal, as background, as completion, as dependable comforter and recompense for any stress or disappointment the rest of the meal might occasion. Bread is for us a kind of successor to the motherly breast, and it has been over the centuries responsible for billions of sighs of satisfaction.
Because we are human and because, as we shall see, “cultural” behaviour appears in us to be a “biological” necessity, bread became in addition, and has remained, a deeply significant symbol, a substance honoured and sacred. We still remember that breaking bread and sharing it with friends “means” friendship itself, and also trust, pleasure, and gratitude in the sharing. Bread as a particular symbol, and food in general, becomes, in its sharing, the actual bond which unites us. The Latin word companion means literally “a person with whom we share bread”; so that every company, from actors’ guild to Multinational Steel, shares in the significance evoked in breaking bread.”
— The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser
Photo: Serious Eats.