Fellowship provided by a simple sandwichPublished 10:15am Friday, March 9, 2012
Column: Notes from Home
Every Thursday at noon I eat lunch at Subway. The rest of the week it’s whatever I bring from home: leftover casseroles or soup heated up in the microwave, peanut butter or ham sandwiches. But Thursdays it’s toasted BMTs at the Subway near campus.
Subway does a pretty good job with sandwiches, but that’s not the reason I eat there. And even though Thursdays is the day that their BMT sandwich (ham, pepperoni, salami) is the sub-of-the-day and available at a discounted price, that’s also not the reason I eat there. I eat that sandwich on that day at noon because that’s where my colleagues and I spend an hour together once a week sharing a table for lunch, talking about what’s been going on in our lives, at work or in the world.
We’ve been sharing this meal together long enough that the people who work there know what we want. It’s like the old TV show Cheers; all I have to do is say “yes” to the woman behind the counter and she gets out the right kind of bread, adds the right kind of cheese to the three meats, and tosses on some tomatoes and banana peppers before toasting it in their high tech oven. All I have to do on Thursdays is decide whether to go with the Full Meal Deal or just get a milk from the cooler.
Those women serve as excellent examples in anybody’s definition of hospitality.
In gathering for our sandwiches each week, we are following long-established practice; sharing a meal with others is an ancient tradition. Ever since people have gathered in groups — in their caves or huts or palaces — eating a meal together has been important. Sharing food is about establishing group identity, demonstrating hospitality and sustaining relationships.
Meals are part of religious rituals, too. Think of Passover in Judaism, the Agape meal shared by early Christians (and some modern ones) that Paul writes about in his epistles, or the Eid al’fitr feast that Muslims share at the end of Ramadan (their month of fasting and celibacy). Hindus and Buddhists also feature meals together as important components of their religious lives. Eating together is just as important within religions across our planet as fasting.
Weddings often involve several meals — suppers, breakfasts, lunches — which are traditional and joyous, but the meals associated with wakes and funerals are also noteworthy. They are rarely somber, depressing times, as people share memories and stories of the departed over sandwiches (and beer, wine or whiskey, in many communities). While there are tears at funeral lunches, more often there is laughter as family and friends celebrate the life of those who have died. A typical response to a death, in fact, involves people bringing food to the family who has lost someone. Refrigerators and freezers fill with people’s gifts, attempts to show their “mitleid” or shared pain by feeding people.
Eating together at Subway — or wherever other groups of workers gather during their busy weeks — may not carry the weight of religious ritual, but it is still important in this post-modern and more skeptical age. Over our sandwiches at Subway each Thursday, we talk about things that entertain us, like movies, music, faculty meetings or hockey, and more serious things, like our marriages, our kids, or even our grandkids (now that we’re old enough for those topics).
Along with the food, we share our listening, our teasing, our friendship, our stupid jokes and even our unasked-for-advice. This mealtime fellowship is enough of a priority for me, that my week just doesn’t feel right if, for some reason, we are unable to gather. What we talk about in the more “official” meetings on campus or discuss in classrooms is important, but some weeks the most significant conversations take place at the narrow little table we share at a fast food restaurant.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.