There is nothing in life as sexy as a man that can cook, mostly because it means that if he's cooking, then I'm not. Tonight he’s stuffing peppers with mince and vegetables and I can tell from the taste in the air that he’s used just enough spice, and if he wasn’t already perfect, he just poured me a glass of wine. I love to watch Chris cook, it’s a skill he inherited from his mum and it’s half the reason I married him. This mostly stems from my love of food, well, my love of eating, and as much as I enjoy a good home cooked meal, I enjoy it even more when it’s been prepared by a trained professional in a nice setting where I’m surrounded by friends. Who doesn’t though, right?
My family have a tradition and it has existed for as long as I can remember. Every Saturday afternoon we come together to eat lunch. As a child, I showed little if any interest in spending time with my family, and I was more than happy to play with friends as my mum took off for the afternoon to engage in this weekly ritual. However, as I got older and my ‘sense of family’ became more meaningful, I began to exchange the time with my friends to spend the afternoon with my family. And by the time I was nineteen, it was as much my tradition as it was theirs. The concept was simple, eat food and talk. Even as I got older I began to safeguard my Saturday afternoons, and it got to the point where only something really important could take me away from that time spent with my family. At no point did I ever dwell on it, or consider why that time had come to be so important to me. I had no reason to until it was time to go, and I realised how much I was going to miss it.
As this blog post discusses not only ‘eating with family and friends’, but ‘eating out’ it’s important to set the precedent of what it is we Irish expect from an establishment. I imagine that coming from the West and growing up in a time of economic growth that our standards are quite high. Why? What gives us the right to be so critical? There may not be only one answer, but I imagine the unifying one is ‘the expense’. It’s not cheap to eat out in Ireland. Reserved mostly for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, most of us don’t see the inside of a restaurant from one year to the next, so naturally we expect a lot, and rightly so. I myself am not a food snob, but a restaurant snob? Yes, I am, or at least I was. Like most of my expectations in life, I had to learn to adjust after I moved to Korea.
My first brush with a Korean ‘restaurant’ definitely cured me of any snobbish standards I may or may not have had, although I don’t know if a Mapo Dumpling technically qualifies as a restaurant. It may not be a technical term, but I’ve always referred to it as more of a hole in a wall, or maybe just a hole. But it was sitting in what can only be described as a dilapidated shack with my colleagues eating cheap, but delicious food that a love affair began. My criteria for what constituted a good night out changed in those first few weeks. As I found myself drifting from 'one hole in the wall' to the next, and experiencing delicious food, I began to realise that I couldn’t care less about the quality of the restaurant, most of which wouldn’t survive a single check from a health inspector in Ireland, it was the company that I loved. I also want to take this opportunity to mention that in the four years I ate in Mapo’s, I never once got ill. And I’m pretty sure there was a dirty mop lying on the floor that first night.
Koreans love to eat out. It was one of the first things that struck me after I arrived. Walking through the busy district of Gangnam, I couldn’t get over the fact that the restaurants were bursting with people, and it was after midnight! Fair enough, it helps that eating out in Korea is not very expensive and since the custom is to eat out in big groups ‘family style’, food is affordable for pretty much everyone. It was amazing, and as I trolled the streets at 1 am I remember having two thoughts: One, “This is crazy!” and two, “whoever said that New York is the city that never sleeps has clearly never been to Seoul”.
Like I said, my entire attitude towards food and eating out completely changed. So what life altering realisation did I come to that week? A simple one. I could care less about eating out, it was eating together that I loved. I hadn’t realised what it was that I had been missing so much about home, but it was the afternoon eating with my family that I had been longing for. So what made those two hours at the weekend different from all of the other time we spent together? Believe it or not, it was the food, which if you think about actually makes a lot of sense. Taking food into our bodies is such a personal act that we only do it with people we feel comfortable. That's why we're so picky about who we invite for dinner. How many times have you seen on TV where someone arrives for dinner who wasn't invited and the entire atmosphere in the room changes. Usually, the scene ends with one person folding their napkin before getting up and politely excusing themselves from the table. Eating together is our way of saying "Hey, I like you. We're friends". It signifies a kind of kinship and loyalty. That's why it's so uncomfortable in movies when a mob boss invites his enemy to dinner and it unfolds that it was actually a setup. The whole reason said enemy went is because they were invited to a restaurant, the concept being let's break bread instead of breaking heads. It feels like such a betrayal when it goes wrong. Anyway, that's the cultural studies student in me, but so began my research about the culture of food, and the importance of eating together. Let me just say, it has been an educational week.
Koreans are a good example as they love to go out to eat and drink together. It’s said that if you stand alone at the top of a street in Seoul, that by the time you reach the end of that street you will have made a friend. In my experience, that rings true, even when you wish it didn’t. Koreans love to eat out! But it’s not as a result of laziness, or a desire to avoid ‘the home’, they are simply an incredibly social people. Every second door in Seoul leads to some type of eatery, the majority of which are full of people sharing good food, and a few rounds of soju. And Korean restaurants are not quiet places; they’re full of noise, laughter, and intoxicated business men in very expensive suits, many of whom I’ve literally stepped over on my way to work the next morning.
Since Ireland is my home, naturally it’s the first stop when I need to make a comparison. And this one was easy since it was probably the thing I missed the most after I left Korea. There is a lot that occurs within the family that is treated as important, but eating together doesn’t seem to make the cut. I’ve noticed it even within my own home since Chris and I have slipped back into old habits. My mum and I eat at different times of the day, and even when Chris and I eat together, the television is on which is hardly a time that I would classify as ‘quality’. It got me thinking not only about Ireland, but also about other countries and their cultural attitude towards food and eating. Having dinner together is a small act and it requires very little of us, yet studies show that fewer and fewer families in Ireland are sitting down to eat together at night. Today, we and our children have such busy schedules with work, football practice, and homework that it has become more habitual to eat dinner in front of the television than to sit down as a family.
So, what if any are the negative effects? My research this week included reading a lot of different academic articles on the social benefits of eating together as a family, and they were all pretty uniform in their findings. Apparently, in families where they are more likely to eat separately the children are more prone to developing social problems later on such as alcohol abuse, smoking, and even the use of drugs. Now, my family didn’t eat together every night and I didn’t grow up to be a drug addict, so clearly there is room for manoeuvre, but still, the results interest me. It’s generally believed it’s what happens during the meals and not the meals themselves that are of importance. Meal-time serves as a conduit for open conversation, and children report that when ‘family-time’ is consistent, they are more likely to confide if they are having problems with friends or in school.
But somehow in the last few years, the concept of eating together has diminished in importance. Perhaps the root is a cultural misconception that eating together as a family is snobbish, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. All that said, I love it. I think as a child eating together around the table was something we reserved for Sundays, so like most things, it took becoming an adult for me to gain an appreciation for what I had as a child. And Korea played a huge role in that.
In Korea food is less about sustenance and more about getting together with your crew and going on the hunt not only for delicious food but a good time. It’s all about making memories, most of which don’t survive past the first bottle of soju. But the tiniest hint of a new restaurant or a new type of fusion food and my friends and I were not just all over it, we would plan our entire weekends around it. I inspired a particularly poignant eye roll from Chris one day when I complained about having to travel forty minutes to a music festival, “I’ve seen you travel an hour and a half when you thought there’d be a good burger at the end of it” He had a point. Touché my friend, touché.
But Koreans are by no means the only people that place value on the act of eating together; in Mexico, I read that the people often congregate in the town square to eat their meals. In Cambodia, the people apparently gather together and spread out large colourful mats before sharing their food and engaging in a sort of pot-luck dinner. Eating as a ‘family’ is a type of ritual, and like all rituals, it can have power. So why don’t we consider it as important in Ireland? Even in France where culturally the people are very likely to eat alone, they are given two hours for lunch. Food is not something that should be rushed but savoured and enjoyed. Where are we going wrong? Of course, like every other topic, this does not apply to everyone. There are families and friends for whom meal times are an important part of the day, but the statistics don’t lie. A survey taken two years ago estimated that one in seven families don’t even own a dining table. Ireland is not the only country in the West to fall victim to this trend, the U.K and U.S.A are right up there as our top two competitors. I talked to a few people about this topic while doing my research this week, and they said that although they would love to spend more time dining with friends and family, unfortunately, it’s a combination of lack of time, money, and distance that results in eating dinner in front of the television.
La Rochefoucauld said, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art”. There is a lot of theory as to what he meant, most of which is pure conjecture. Personally, I think he meant that we should eat well, and eat together. There is nothing healthier, more fulfilling, or more stimulating than sitting around a table of people you love sharing in good cuisine and excellent conversation.