Restaurants nourish both mind and body
WE ALL HAVE indelible recollections of time spent around a restaurant dining table: a special dessert on the occasion of a birthday; Champagne when you proposed (or someone proposed to you!); or maybe just an ordinary Thursday night when great food and good conversation came together just right.
Right now, as our community deals with the coronavirus pandemic, memories of meals past feel more dear than ever before. Yes,
we miss the food; yes, we can still get some of it to-go. No, it isn’t quite the same. That’s because there’s a powerful sociological element to dining out that goes beyond a basic need to satisfy hunger.
“Food is a particularly poignant human symbol at the best of times — we eat according to our history, our culture, our family, and how we wish to be viewed,” says Dr. Jennifer Sweeney Tookes, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University who specializes in the anthropology of food and culture. “During social distancing, food continues to be significant in all those same ways. We want to find comfort in the normal and usual, and tasting food is often the easiest, most immediate way to find solace in trying times.”
Dining out can also function as an act of self-care, says Blend & Press Wellness Bar owner Chelsea Dye. When we cook at home, “the joy of nourishment is outweighed by the responsibility of simply getting a meal on the table and moving on to the next task,” she says. Restaurants allow us to connect with others, explore new flavors, enjoy a change in scenery, and — most important — eat more mindfully. “Being present in the moment is essential to truly nourishing our bodies,” Dye says.
Restaurants also provide an important “third place,” Tookes says, referring to the sociological term of neutral, equalizing spaces outside our homes and beyond professional workplaces — think coffee shops, hair salons and, of course, restaurants. When we head to our favorite neighborhood establishment, we instantly become part of a community and experience a sense of belonging. Interactions with serving staff and patrons also provide a friendly social outlet, particularly for people who may have limited human contact other-wise, Tookes says.
Close your eyes, and recall your last dining experience: you met up with family or friends, spoke to the host to be seated, spoke with the server to order food, and enjoyed a beautifully prepared meal (with no cleanup). “A familiar sequence of actions is ritualistic,” Tookes says. “Rituals provide humans with a sense of security and control over their lives, and without being able to visit restaurants, it’s possible that people who rely on this routine are feeling more adrift than usual.”
One thing is for certain: We can’t wait to return to Savannah’s dining rooms with gratitude, and to sign the check with hearts and bellies full.