The Thanksgiving holiday is not exactly about eating, but it is incomprehensible without eating – and not just any eating, but eating together. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent study (The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families, p. 53), the typical host this Thanksgiving “will be setting places for 12 family members.” (My California family’s Thanksgiving dinner will be just half that. On the other hand, my New York relatives’ holiday dinner together will be at least double the average.) For most of human history, most meals (and not just “holiday” meals) were, when possible, eaten with others. And for most people, throughout most of human history, the ordinary shared meal was most often a family meal. At Thanksgiving, people (myself included) travel thousands of miles not to eat turkey, but to eat turkey with others – typically family members or others with whom one is comparably close.
The contemporary popularity of restaurants and of eating out (to the extent that it is a real meal and not just food eaten quickly, impersonally, and alone) may well reflect not just the obvious convenience of not having to cook for oneself but also may reflect a recognition of a real desire to commune with others over food. Those who resist the fashionable temptation to eat at their desks and actually take time for a real lunch hour with colleagues or friends may be expressing as much about their need and desire for human community as they are about how they prefer best to meet their nutritional needs.
Of course, there are all sorts of factors which get in the way of the classic common meal. Economic necessity forces many people to work too many hours. Many more work too many hours because that may lead to their feeling more validated in certain – particularly professional - circles. Families find themselves prisoners of individual members’ conflicting schedules. All these extrinsic factors impinge upon community (even religious communities), breaking bonds which might otherwise be stronger. Sometimes, competing schedules are less a consequence of economic necessity than they are a product of our greater individual freedom. Given the pervasive power and appeal of individual liberty today, I suspect that the only kind of human community that can seriously survive the assaults of our fixation on individual freedom is one which accepts and respects individual freedom and can negotiate new communal relationships and rituals. Herein lies perhaps the great practical challenge for the future of the common meal – that of transforming its present predicament of being in competition with our individual freedom (symbolized by our separate schedules) into a positive reinforcement of human freedom by furthering its fulfillment in relationships. If the common meal as an obligation is a thing of the past, shared meals as opportunities for genuine mutuality may be increasingly necessary.
In the life of Jesus, shared meals played a visibly important part in his ministry. Jesus’ practice of eating with all sorts of people, particularly with those he might otherwise not be expected to eat with, was widely recognized as a genuine sign of something new. A new kind of connectedness was created among people who, in that society certainly, would probably never have otherwise socialized together. Not just at Thanksgiving, but always, those committed to continue Christ’s work of healing and reconciliation would do well to keep in mind the memory of those early Christians who shared meals together “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46 NRSV).