Silence at the Table

Several years ago, I went with a friend on a spring break trip to an Episcopal monastery in upstate New York. The place is picturesque, the monastery sitting on an expansive, grassy piece of land on the Hudson River. Along the wooded driveway, there were maple trees, tapped with milk jugs, waiting for maple syrup to fill them, and nestled into a clearing among those trees was a small stone-lined labyrinth. When we arrived, we stood on the back terrace and looked out. My friend pointed out an eagle soaring overhead. The river moved quietly under a gray sky, and my friend (who had been there before) told me that deer could often be seen grazing in the grass on the way down to the river.

We had come there to write, to study, to read, and to escape a bit. We were both working on our MFAs in Creative Writing, she on her thesis, I on my coursework. That particular order of monks takes a vow of hospitality, and therefore they open their monastery to outside visitors in need of quiet retreat. Guests are given a small bedroom furnished with a bed, a cozy chair, and a desk. Bathrooms are communal, meals are provided, and since this monastery is just across the river from the Culinary Institute of America, their chef (and the chef’s wife, who was filling in for him during our visit) are both CIA graduates.

Bottom line:  the food is good, seasonal, and comforting. The facilities are all you need. It’s serene and idyllic.

Just one rule:  breakfasts are eaten in silence.

This rule stressed me out. I’m perky. I like to talk. I was raised in a home where the standing code of conduct held that when you entered a room in the morning and found someone else in it, you wished them a cheerful, “Good morning!” I still do it (much to the chagrin of people who are not morning-friendly). I worried that I would forget myself, that I would accidentally wish someone a good morning, that I would ask a question, that I would break the silence, ruin it for someone else.

But I was happily surprised to find that silent dining fit nicely. Everyone traded pleasant, sheepish smiles and nods to one another, but no one uttered a peep. It was like a secret we were all in on. We stood in line for food, silently spooning food onto our plates, pouring milk over our cereal, stirring sugar to our coffee. Our movements were minimal and almost noiseless. In the dining room, a room that one might expect to be full of jovial noise, the clanking of dishes and the exchanging of words, there was only quiet, the subtle shuffling of bodies, the occasional chime of utensils against dishes.

We tend to associate eating with fellowship. I used to teach a freshman-level English Composition class that was built around food and food writing, and in that class, I reminded students that many of our important moments are built around a meal:  holiday gatherings, first dates, proms, weddings. Nigella Lawson, in her cookbook How To Eat:  The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, writes, “I don’t deny that food, its preparation as much as its consumption, is about sharing, about connectedness.”

There is a tendency to associate that connectedness, that sharing, to speaking. We tell stories, jokes, we talk about the food, we eavesdrop on other diners and then talk about what they’re talking about. But when we take away the talking, does the connectedness remain intact?

Yes and no. Dining with other people, all in silence, is different. It can seem odd not to exchange pleasantries over coffee and pastries. It can, perhaps, feel like an imposed loneliness; we aren’t physically alone, but we are mentally on our own. For those who like to talk (ahem, me), the concept is foreign. But only in the beginning. When we give silent dining a chance, there is time for reflection. Dining in silence achieves the same thing as meditation, as reading poetry, as taking a moment or two to stare at the ocean or a tree or a bird eating from a feeder. We are able to think, to notice the world around us, to start our day with peace and reflection. But we are doing that reflecting in the company of other diners. Our journeys into the day are solitary, but we don’t go alone. We remain connected to each other, but we also connect to ourselves, to our food, to our experiences. We are silent pilgrims, each on his own, making the journey together.

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This post originally appeared on Food Riot


2 thoughts on “Silence at the Table

  1. I love your thoughts on this: It’s almost the way I feel about the blogging community, in the sense that although we all have our own lives and responsibilities that we don’t always share, we are all connected in a way; we are a group, together. I can imagine it’s very jarring at first to be told to not do what comes naturally at breakfast (speaking / sharing plans for the day, etc) but it does give you a chance to begin the day perhaps a little more focused on yourself than usual. I know i tend to get up very early, because i value that hour or so of forced silence. in that silence, i concentrate on what i need to do and how i want to approach my own day before it begins.

    1. Thanks, Shannon! I definitely see the parallel with the blogging community – we go in our different directions, with our own personal styles and takes on writing and whatever our subjects are, but we all go together. We all use the web, we all write, we all share.
      I found it difficult the first morning of breakfast at the monastery, but really, I eased into it more easily than I thought I would. Nowadays, I like to just sit and enjoy my coffee in the morning and think before I wander out to my desk or attempt any work. It’s a great way to focus the day before it gets off and running.

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