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Breaking bread

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 16, 2006

I have of late – but wherefore I know not – become preoccupied with sorting through my memories of my time as an undergraduate. I have never been in the habit of taking photographs, but I imagine that the experience is rather like going through a shoebox full of unsorted photographs and being able to remember the moments recorded without recalling why they and not others seemed worthy of preservation.

Few memories of my freshman week remain. I vaguely recall the college dean welcoming us with a speech mostly devoted to the importance of being on time for things. I remember more vividly a student assuring me that my experience at Oxford would be nothing like Brideshead Revisited. It was a kind gesture, meant to put me at my ease, but since at that time I had not read the novel, the ease with which he alluded to a book I didn’t know only made me feel more intimidated.

I don’t remember walking into a lamppost while waving to my first girlfriend in her room, but I know it must have happened because I do remember very clearly imagining how this wholly unintentional piece of slapstick must have looked from the perspective of her third floor window. Then there was the day when the heating in my dorm cut out and rather than going a day without washing I decided to take a cold shower, attempting to keep myself warm using nothing but bad language.

Something that I never would have been able to predict at the time was how many of my best memories are connected with food. The narrator of Marcel Proust’s semi-autobiographical À la recherche du temps perdu had only to taste a madeleine to unleash a cataract of reminiscence, but in my case it has very little to do with the food itself, about which I remember very little beyond the fact that it wasn’t very good. No, what I miss is the habit of dining with others on a daily basis. There’s a particular kind of unhurried conversation that takes place over a meal that isn’t possible in other social situations, even at parties where the imperative is to circulate and where talking to the same person or group for a long period of time can appear antisocial.

Shared meals help to define and build a community. In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul recalls how he excoriated the apostle Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile Christians. Paul held that this was antithetical to the unity of the church; to be a true community the followers of Christ, Jew and Gentile alike, should break bread together. Or, as Paul would have probably preferred to put it; because the followers of Christ are a true community they must break bread together.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are unusual in the world of contemporary higher education because a substantial proportion of the professors at each institution still dine in their colleges with their colleagues. There is even one college, All Souls, Oxford (the closest thing that England has to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton) where young scholars of exceptional promise are elected to special fellowships which carry no teaching obligations whatsoever but do require the recipient to dine in college a certain amount of times per year.

As well as improving the sense of community, eating together can be intellectually fruitful. During the 1950s the scientists working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge were required to eat lunch at the nearby Eagle pub. The director of the laboratory at the time believed that this would be good not only for morale, but also for the research conducted by the various groups at work there who might otherwise talk only amongst themselves. It was quite fitting then that it was in the Eagle pub that Francis Crick (of “Watson and” fame) first announced, with characteristic modesty, “We have discovered the secret of life.”

Now that collegial dining is no longer part of my student experience, I try to compensate whenever possible by eating with friends. My favorite way of doing this is at a dinner party (for which I have a convert’s zeal) but most of the time I end up going to restaurants with friends. Since many of these friends are men, this means that I have unwittingly been on many “man dates,” although I wasn’t aware of the fact until I came across the term in a New York Times article written last April by Jennifer Lee.

In her article Lee described, with a casuist’s eye for detail, the various rules of etiquette observed by two men dining together in order to make it abundantly clear to anyone who might be paying attention that they are not gay. Apparently ordering wine is just about acceptable while splitting a bottle is tantamount to coming out of the closet and so on and so forth.

Aside from revealing an unhealthy obsession with how we appear in the eyes of those we don’t know and whose speculations about our sexuality we have no reason to care about, Lee’s article reveals an impoverished view of the possibilities of male friendship. Worst of all, those who assume that two men eating together in a restaurant must be lovers show a failure to imagine the pleasures of the kind of protracted conversation which has no purpose beyond conversation itself and which is best savored over a good meal.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. Peter can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.