Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Simple Meal with Symbolic Significance

Surely, every parent hopes to teach his child good dietary habits and to be successful in school. After all, good dietary habits lead to life-long health and a successful school career opens the door to a lifetime of opportunity and self-sufficiency.

Dinner together is one ritual that parents can honor in order to instill good dietary habits and teach academic success. The simple act of breaking bread together can plant the seeds for a lifetime of bountiful harvests.

Movies and literature seem to have recognized the power of breaking bread long before the most recent round of parenting tips and talk-show blather. Indeed, the feast, whether an intimate dinner for two or an entire community, is iconic; i. e., it is a conventional archetypal symbol for:

• Sharing
• Celebrating
• Communicating

Sharing. When the lost and abused Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (1974) stumbles into a blind man’s hut, the monster answers the old man’s prayer, asking for a visitor to forestall his great loneliness. In gratitude, the host offers soup as comfort against the cold and wine in honor of friendship. The blind man shares what little he has as a way of bringing strangers together and sustaining them on their long, separate journeys. Of course, as Gene Wilder intended, the scene plays against the wholesome, gratifying meanings, and in its incongruities, is very funny.

On the other hand, the recent holiday, Thanksgiving, usually honored in a spirit of sharing and caring, commemorates a legendary act of sharing when the Native Americans offered what they could to the hungry and grateful Pilgrims. In the nearly four hundred years since, families and friends gather to share what their labor has provided.

Breaking bread also has religious significance. From the Last Supper forward, believers accept the sacrament of communion in order to share in the mercy and sacrifice of the Redeemer. In addition, some religious orders teach acolytes to eschew money, permanent shelter, and regular provisions, relying upon the good nature and good deeds of others on their journey. Those who share with the seeker derive spiritual rewards.

. From the cake that honors birthday celebrants to a multi-course dinner served after a wedding, breaking bread signifies celebration. For the upcoming holidays, including Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or the Chinese New Year, families will labor to prepare traditional dishes. In Charles Dickens’ world, a great goose and Figgy Pudding bring joy. In many dairy aisles, the annual appearance of eggnog in a carton cries “Merry Christmas.”

In the Jewish tradition, foods such as potato latkes, cooked in oil, mirror the reason for the season: oil that miraculously burned much longer than it should have. For Kwanzaa, dishes that link to African roots and the foods that slaves had access to fill the tables. These include collard greens, gumbos that used a little bit of whatever plus okra, and corn or cornbread. The Asian tradition of ringing in the New Year invites good fortune so foods are prepared and served whole so as not to carve up one’s luck.

Communicating. Sometimes the food is the message. In Babette’s Feast, Babette uses her lottery loot and her consummate skill as a cook to prepare a lavish feast for people unaccustomed to fine cuisine. She does this purely--with no thought of reward. She simply wishes to thank the villagers for allowing her to live among them. Still, breaking such fine bread together makes the elderly guests at the table whole and restores everyone to a state of well-being. Such is the communicative and healing power of breaking bread.

Chocolate has similar powers in Chocolat. Estranged couples fall in love again and many find the strength to overcome adversity simply by allowing in the delectable scent and flavors of chocolate. It communicates life’s pleasures and heals wounds.

In Eat Drink Man Woman, viewers infer that among the necessities for a full life are eating, drinking, and love. Indeed, preparing food with care and attention to detail is the metaphor for building a fulfilling relationship. One must carefully plan and attend to every detail in order to nurture and foster love.

Film-makers and authors may also use the literary archetype of breaking bread as the opposite of sharing, celebrating, and communicating. American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, plays against all these symbolic meanings. Kevin Spacey, the father who just quit his job, asks his wife or daughter to pass the asparagus repeatedly. He finally stands to retrieve it himself, only to throw the plate against the wall. All of this action occurs against the musical backdrop of Frank Sinatra bouncing out the tune “Call Me Irresponsible,” a trait that his wife truly believes him to possess.

The dinner also introduces irony. Most people would not celebrate quitting or losing a job; in doing so, the father does not live up to the fatherly duty of providing for the family, a fact that his shrill, snarky wife points out. The daughter even arrives late and tries to run from her parents’ bitter quarrel; she does not wish to partake of the food and does not eat a single bite. Certainly, no one celebrates anything except lowered expectations, disappointments, and love lost.

Finally, the food and dinner itself does not fulfill or heal. It is a perfunctory event wherein people pretend civility by saying “please” when asking for a dish to be passed, but all civility disappears when the father’s requests go unheard and he hurls the dish against the wall. The mother has set the table with candles and flowers, suggesting romance is on the menu, but the evening’s entree is vitriol, not love and respect. This family meal communicates each member’s isolation and pain.

As you read and write, be aware of the power of eating together. Writers do not simply create a dinner scene to fill space; they intend to invoke our understanding of food as a path to sharing, celebrating and communicating. They suggest themes as a result, including the ones mentioned in this post:

• Food brings people together.
• Food restores people to a state of well being.
• Food is a gift of generosity and creativity.

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the films mentioned in this post, or in honor of this time of year, read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Writing Challenge:

Make a list of films and books that include a dinner scene. Write a sentence (or two) in which you declare what the scene signifies.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Fewer and Less

Which of the following is correct?

• Magazines have fewer pages these days because publishing costs are high, subscription rates are low, and readers receive their news online.

• Print magazines have less readership these days because of the Internet.

• Print magazines have fewer readers these days because of the Internet.

• Fewer students qualify for student loans these days because there is less money available.

• In less than two years, many magazines have folded, and the size of individual magazines fell by a bit less than 20%.

Each of the sample sentences is correct. Can you determine the rules by observing closely the correct uses of the words?

• If the word modified has a plural form (page and pages), choose “fewer.”
• If the word has no plural form (as in “readership” or “money”), choose “less.”
• If the word modified refers to people (readers and students), choose “fewer.”
• Use “less” when modifying time (years) or numbers (percentage).

*In the interest of accuracy, the figure 20% is complete conjecture.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach