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On Dining

Inspired by William Cowper, The Connoisseur
by Josephine Valenzuela

Animi cultus quasi quidam humanitatis cibus. Crc
Cultivation is to the mind what food is to the body.

There is no occasion so potentially gratifying as meal time. Man has been defined as a reasoning animal, a laughing animal, a self-aware animal, but in truth, it would be most accurate to call him a dining animal. While beasts devour their meals in unceremonious solitude, man chooses to linger over his, carefully selecting and savoring each delicately prepared morsel while taking in the collected wit of his peers. In polite company and with polished conversation, even the simplest foods can be exquisitely nourishing. It is hard to imagine a more enticing scene than friends gathered around a pleasant evening meal, a fire blazing or gentle music playing in the background, while a commerce of insight leisurely unfolds between the participants well into the later hours.

As dining presents such a robust opportunity for self-improvement, and such potential for pleasure, how lamentable the current state of the meal-time ritual, particularly in the context of our institutions of higher education. Even the finest gentlemen scholars of Leland Stanford Junior University, who never fail to open a door for the fairer sex and would sooner be laid to rest than compromise their honor, can be caught tearing into meals with savage abandon, sweat glistening on their strained brows, grunting with concentrated effort. Young ladies, too, are not free from reproach. How often have you seen a lovely female undergraduate at the midday hour, sitting quite alone, with her pretty face turned not towards a gracious companion but a flighty romance, absently picking at a pile of lettuce, a few mouthfuls of yogurt?
This paucity of dining manners, so common in our collegiate men and women, can perhaps be traced to our harried upbringings. Too often now we find families ensconced in a frenzied routine of mundane pursuits, both parents working long days to come home tired and vexed, with little energy remaining for the duties and pleasures of the evening meal. Microwaveables often substitute for meticulously prepared traditional fare; many times, the family cannot even manage to sit at the same table, with some members eating earlier and some later, some in the kitchen and some in the living room, not even consuming the same dish. Rarely can a hint of conversation be discerned in the disaffected evening scene. No wonder, then, that the offspring of this exhausted family inevitably emulate those same habits, wolfing hasty meals between classes and a dizzying array of extracurricular activities, and leaving the pleasures of temporary leisure and intellectual conversation completely unsampled.

Upon graduation, this tendency is hardly discouraged, if not actively encouraged. When the intrepid young student has at long last secured paying work, he is then expected to commit all manner of atrocities against the ritual of dining, from conducting commercial affairs over the midday meal (a business lunch), to eating alone at his desk to save time, to skipping meals altogether; even if the poor drudge manages to evade these cruel fates, he still has to contend with the inevitable repetition of the sins of his parents.

No doubt every reader has personal experience with unskilled dining companions; few, perhaps, have given great thought to the myriad of distinct characters that comprise this set, and the different methods by which a charming meal is rendered sour.

Daniel Varsity treats every meal like an athletic training season. He has no time for the niceties of conversation, nor a moment for the subtle flavors of carefully prepared cuisine. He enters the dining hall each day at precisely the same time, flanked by no fewer than two teammates dressed in identical sports attire—the uniform of these like-minded brutes—and proceeds indiscriminately to pile his plate to impossible heights with a mishmash of conflicting flavors. With a low grunt, he indicates his intended table of destination; there he and his companions spread their plates and their corporeal selves across a stretch of space that would have accommodated twice as many. With practiced deftness they avoid any conversational topics that would tax the intellect, preferring terse exchanges on topics like training schedules and equipment. If this were not enough to repel the enterprising dinner partner, hoping to snatch a bit of cultured dialogue from novel companions, the sight of the next act surely would: elbows planted firmly on the table, the athlete and his familiars begin to shovel heaps of food into their mouths, with barely a break for air. The sounds of slurping and scraping pale even the most stalwart young pre-medical ladies at the neighboring table. Having finished their meals in minutes, the three hastily push their chairs back and clamor out of the hall, leaving the scattered remains of their food like the bones of so many carcasses.

Our next character is in many ways the direct opposite of the former. Johnny Solitary, though he never makes even the barest effort to break his self-imposed isolation, is more a figure of pity than annoyance. Meal times are a great source of anxiety for him. While his peers bustle around at lunch or dinner in rowdy jocularity, Johnny Solitude takes great pains to ignore their display completely. Like a man guilty of a crime, he is instantly on edge if anyone should approach him with a conversational gambit, and in superlative distress tries to ward off these pleasant attempts with terse replies. Most often he can be seen smuggling plates of food from the kitchen up to his private quarters to consume them in secrecy; at times, however, weary of this complex charade, he can be apprehended sneaking meals in the dark corners of the dining hall, nose buried securely in a paper or book, headphones blasting music audibly, and backpack slung over his shoulders in the event that he should need to make a sudden retreat to evade approaching revelers. No amount of tender enticement can lure him from his shell; only the end of the meal brings him relief.

Of course, one does not need to be unescorted to a meal in order to experience intellectual isolation. Jenny and Nathan Inseparable are equally alone in each other’s perpetual company. Should an agreeable diner venture to join them, they feign a sort of vague interest, neither one wanting to appear rudely unsocial to their other half. Scarcely breaking eye contact with each other, they will give half-hearted assent for the interloper to be seated, asking impersonal questions about the welfare of their guest, nodding lazily and giving absent-minded replies, all the while passing winks between themselves and laughing and private jokes. Their conversation is all mmm-hmmms, and how-trues, and oh-quites, and is-that-sos, interspersed with dreamy sighs. They scarcely touch their food, too reluctant to disentangle their hands for even the moment it would take to lift utensil to mouth; at the end of the meal they float off together, leaving all but a few nibbles of edibles and worthwhile banter undigested.

Doubtless the reader is familiar with a plethora of other characters—the gossip, the soap-boxer, the dieter, etc.—but I will leave these descriptions to the imagination. It will be sufficient to end with this advice on the topic of dining: one should approach each meal not merely as an occasion to feed the body, but also as a chance to nourish the mind with conversation, and therefore to treat this time with the appropriate gravity and good humor. The pursuit of taste leads to a true refinement of character, and cannot be neglected in the education of the earnest young person, if he is to call himself civilized. Therefore one should never pile one’s plate too high, nor leave it too bare; rather, seek to discriminate among the many choices, both of companions and victuals, and in doing so appreciate both to the fullest.

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