By David Wantz, University of Indianapolis
In the movie A River Runs Through It, Tom Skerritt plays a minister sternly insisting his young son eat everything on his plate before the family says grace. The boy sits just as sternly refusing to eat. Everyone else is done with dinner and leaves the boy to himself and his now-cold dinner. Finally, as darkness falls on the house, the family gathers again, kneels at their chairs and says, simply, “Grace.” End of scene.
I always understood “saying grace” to be a synecdoche, similar to the way we say “the White House” and mean more than the president’s residence. It seems the film’s director, Robert Redford, understood saying grace to be a literal utterance.
There are lots of ways to say grace, I suppose. The one I grew up with was: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed. Other families learned: God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. At Scout camp one summer, I learned: Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Yea God! They are roughly the same, aren’t they?
To me, the point of saying grace is to pause long enough to remember my good fortune in the face of others’ calamity. We contemplate how blessed we are and are compelled to be grateful, therefore. I admit, saying grace does not make the food taste better. No amount of prayer will prevent my gagging at the smell of brussels sprouts.
I don’t say grace in restaurants, because it seems unseemly: a conspicuous display of piety. It doesn’t mean I am less grateful, just less apt to prove my gratitude to everyone else. Nor do I like the way it sounds when the table grace includes blessing “this meal and the hands that have prepared it.” It reminds me of a costume drama where the baron recalls the minions who serve him. If we are truly grateful to the cooks and servers, perhaps clearing our own dishes or tipping 20% is a better way to demonstrate it.
Is it even okay to say grace these days or has it gone out of fashion like saying yes ma’am? Such phrases used to be a sign of polite respect, the English equivalent of zie rather than du, vous instead of tu. According to the New York Times, saying ma’am can today be perceived as toadying, sexist, or ageist. Is it the same with saying grace at meals: just a quaint anachronism?
At the very least, saying grace before a meal gives everyone an even chance to be seated before the chowing-down begins. I would be interested in hearing your ideas about saying grace at mealtime. It’s food for thought.
And Food for Thought is the theme of this year’s Spirit and Place Festival, a public festival celebrating the intersection of art, humanities and religion. The festival will run from November 5 -14, 2010, with events all over the city. Lots of food. Lots of talk. Lots of thinking about food. I am David Wantz, a member of the S&P Advisory Board. Won’t you participate in this conversation with us? You have some ideas about food and eating and the rituals surrounding them. Won’t you share those ideas with your neighbors in this annual public festival?