Italians take food very seriously. Their food is an art, their table is a gathering space, and a meal can last hours. They don’t just eat to nourish their bodies, they savor every second at the table.
In America, it’s common to see families eating in front of the TV (guilty), people drinking smoothies on the way to work (guilty) and people scarfing down food just to make it to the next thing on time (also guilty). I love food, but I also get really anxious when I feel there is “wasted time.” Having this mindset was difficult in Italy because nothing about the dining experience was fast. On our first day in Rome, we were scurrying along the cobblestone streets trying to make it to the Colosseum for a tour. But we were absolutely starving! So we stopped at a restaurant, expected it to take a family of five about 40 minutes to eat, and we ended up staying there an hour and a half. All I could think about was the time-type a personality over here-and I found myself getting annoyed at the waiter. My mom could tell I was frustrated, but she reminded me not to expect the Italians to operate on our time table. They aren’t American. We can’t just demand our way in a foreign country.
I’m really grateful for that reality check, because it shaped the rest of my time there. Whenever we were at meals, we reminded each other to just enjoy the culture. Sure, the waiter might take thirty minutes to come take our order, but he’s giving us more time to talk. The restaurant owners might bring us all champagne or shots of limoncello, but her way of thanking us for our business. Everything about a meal might seem extravagant, but that’s the Italian way.
We saw families sitting around a table talking for hours while passing a bottle of wine among them, slowly, enjoying every sip of Marlot. We saw couples, both young and old, enjoying the bread that came before every meal. Recognizing the way the food became sacred as they sat across a table from one another. We watched as teenagers never once took out their cell phones when seated next to their parents and grandparents.
By the end of the trip, I found myself really enjoying a meal for the first time. I felt more relaxed when nothing was rushed. My family actually talked to one another instead of texting under the table.
We started to savor the moments spent around the table just as the Italians intended.
Then I came back to America, and I genuinely miss Italian meals. They see food as an experience, and the table as a vital part of a family unit. They believe community can’t happen when one skips the bread and wine. The bread and wine do not just serve as food and drink. No, bread and wine represents who they are.
If you think about it, even Jesus recognized the importance of bread and wine and the table. At the last supper, he led the first communion, and Christians have been drinking wine (or grape juice) and bread (or crackers) ever since in order to honor Him. When did we step away from the table? The ancient tradition of gathering community around a meal is long gone among American culture. But why?
Would it be so inconvenient, so difficult for us to step back in time and get back to the basics? The Italians sure don’t think so. I think it’s time we start to recognize the sacredness of the table. To remember we weren’t created for such an individualized society. We were created for bread and wine (or grape juice if you prefer). We were created for community. We were created to actually enjoy food, and the connection that mealtime allows. We were created to savor. There’s so much more freedom enjoying a meal the Italian way.