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Monique Keiran: Find community around the dinner table

Holiday menus and tasty treats figure largely at this time of year. Already, the festive dinners and seasonal parties have begun. Groaning boards are groaning, and horns of plenty are plentiful and overflowing.

Holiday menus and tasty treats figure largely at this time of year. Already, the festive dinners and seasonal parties have begun. Groaning boards are groaning, and horns of plenty are plentiful and overflowing.

The sharing of food, I’ve come to realize, is both a basic human expression of community and a universal means to create community. Around the world, we share food to reinforce traditions, beliefs and values we hold in common.

We punctuate our rituals and beliefs with the exchange of food. Friends and family gather over food to celebrate events or just celebrate the ending of another day or week.

And while we exchange food, we exchange stories. We talk, share news, discuss experiences, debate, argue, laugh, shed tears, get angry, comfort one another. Even though we profess to eschew fat, we still chew the fat.

Once we did this around the campfire, while gnawing on slabs of roasted auroch or bison. That sharing of food and stories brought us together. We communed and became community.

Some communities have safeguarded the ritual of dining together. In some parts of the world, families and friends still take time to sit together, eat together and talk together. It might not happen daily, but it happens regularly.

The regular ritual started unravelling in North America during the world wars, when so many men were away fighting, Sis was working shifts at the factory and mom was managing the farm on her own.

After that, dinner became TV dinner. Then, working parents and overscheduled kids pounded a few more nails into the tabletop coffin.

Now, when families and friends sit down to eat, you can expect some diners will place a smartphone or tablet next to their plate or close to hand, or gulp down the meal to get right back to the device.

According to Clicks & Cravings: The Impact of Social Technology on Food Culture, about 30 per cent of 1,640 adults surveyed who are online regularly visit social-networking sites while eating or drinking at home, and 19 per cent use them while eating out.

Thirty-two per cent of those surveyed said they regularly text or socialize on a mobile device at mealtime, and almost one-quarter admitted they respond to conversations on social media before and during meals.

Those who grew up with these technologies are the most frequent offenders. Almost half of the young adults surveyed say they regularly text and tweet while eating.

In the past, the survey’s authors say, we ate our meals together around a table. Today, “it is normal to eat with computers, phones, televisions and, increasingly, alone and often without a table.”

Which means that, although online communities are thriving and multiplying, the communities that form only when we sit down with each other around the campfire or the dinner table are suffering.

And unless families share with each other on social media, the bonds of online families can suffer, too. When kids “friend” their parents on Facebook, the families grow closer, according to one study.

Comedian Louis C.K. isn’t the first person to dump publicly on less social aspects of social media. We’ve heard that Facebook causes depression in some people and accentuates narcissism in others, and that excessive time online encourages short attention spans, shallow thinking and loss of social skills.

Certainly, use of social media seems to coincide with an apparent increase in bad manners.

However, we have to remember new media are merely tools. This means each of us is responsible for consciously defining how, when, why and for what we use them — for not permitting our lives, relationships and round-the-campfire communities to be ruled by them.

And for holding ourselves to those limits and boundaries.

So, why not start this season, with dinner? Let’s put the phones and devices away for an hour each evening. We’ll sit down together, eat, talk and get to know one another.

We’ll become a real, face-to-face community again.

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