The sacred before-meal prayer,offering thanks for the bounty and abundance that feeds and nourishes our bodies,in the many forms it takes across cultures, has been a grounding reminder for even the smallest family members about the importance of being grateful for what we have.
For millennia, we humans have had our most important conversations, forged our strongest, alliances, and made our biggest decisions at the same location. The dinner table. In every corner of the globe, family traditions have been passed down through recipes, ceremonial serving items (Grandma Pearl’s set of fine china or Uncle Hazzba’s after-dinner hookah), and stories shared over meals.
Sadly, I see these rituals becoming less common in our busy modern lives. Families gather around the television instead of the hearth, individuals interact with their devices instead of each other, or food is grabbed from a package while on the run. Meanwhile, many are longing for more connection to each other, to the Earth, and to spirit.
The conscious preparation and sharing of food as a sacred ritual is a powerful binding force for families and communities. When we lovingly prepare food together, and serve it with gratitude, we receive more than just physical nourishment. The secret ingredient in every tenderly prepared dish around the world is the same: love.
Growing up in my own family, my grandfather Nick (my namesake) was a keeper of his family’s cooking tradition, and instilled in me a deep reverence for food and all of its delicious magic.
Grandpa Nick grew up as a baker’s son in Brooklyn. He learned from his parents how to make a hundred different traditional Italian/Sicilian dishes, including the best bread you’ve ever eaten. I spent entire days helping my grandparents cook in the in-law apartment we built for them in our basement. My grandfather’s meticulous way of preparing the ingredients, cooking each dish, and cleaning up while he went along was meditative.
I used to get tingles up my spine just watching them prepare the homemade manicotti, the white bean and escarole soup, and the pulpita salad with fresh octopus. He’d lick his upper lip – an indicator that he was really concentrating on a difficult manoeuver, while tucking the semolina dough under a delicately positioned ravioli.
Each moment in the kitchen felt so rich, so tranquil, so filled with intention, meaning, and joy. The way life should be.
My father still tells stories about the old days growing up. Sunday night dinners with all of his cousins, aunts, and uncles crowded around a huge dinner table crammed into a tiny little Brooklyn dining room, and how this was “where it all happened”. This is where stories of the old family were told, where my dad got to see his dad’s fluid banter with his uncles, and witness his Mum’s playful gossip with her sisters. One big family melting pot, where everyone one was noticed and loved. And the food was delicious.
Everyone in my family knew their way around the kitchen, but Grandpa Nick’s cooking was the stuff of legend. His food bedazzled the taste buds of many of my friends, but the greatest impact he made on us came before we even lifted our forks to our mouths.
The man said the most powerful grace I’ve ever heard. Lucid, devotional, inspirational, humble, vulnerable – an entranced conversation with God.
If you were in our family, you knew the drill, and if you were a newcomer you learned it quick. Once the food was laid out and everyone was seated, my grandfather would look around the table and make gentle eye contact with everyone. Then he’d reach for the hand of the person seated to his right and left, prompting them to do the same, until the circle was complete and connected.
He would close his eyes, bow his head, and in a fast, rhythmic cadence, pray to God to bless the food, shed his light and love on everyone at the table, and then thank him over and over again for all that he had given us. This wasn’t for show; it was a communication.
When he was complete, he’d open his eyes, lift his head, and with a sweet smile on his face say, “Are you ready to eat?” And then we’d all dig in. Grandpa Nick always served everyone else first, before himself. But the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Sicilian could eat the rest of us under the table!
I am doing my best to follow my grandfather’s example. In my own family, we have a “no devices at the dinner table” rule. We may not make everything we eat from scratch, but we do take the time to ponder the origin of our food and bless our meals for the sustenance they provide our body, mind, and spirit. Mealtime is a time for us to be fully present with one another, setting aside the hustle and bustle of the day.
If you would like to bring more sacredness into the preparation and sharing of food in your home, below are 3 blessings that may inspire you :
A Unitarian Blessing
Blessed be the Earth for giving birth to this food
Blessed be the Sun for nourishing it
Blessed be the Wind for carrying its seed
Blessed be the Rain for quenching its thirst.
Blessed be the hands that helped to grow this food,
To bring it to our tables
To nourish our minds, bodies, and spirits.
Blessed be our friends, our families, and our loved ones.
From the Native American Iroquois Tradition
We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters
the beans and squashes, which give us life.
We return thanks to the bushes and trees
which provide us with fruit.
We return thanks to the Great Spirit
in who is embodied all goodness,
and who directs all things for the good of his children.
Meal Prayer adapted from Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh
May the food we are eating make us aware of the
interconnections between Universe and us
Earth and us, and all other living species and us.
Because each bite contains in itself the life of Sun and Earth.
May we see the meaning and value of life from these
precious morsels of food.