If every summer you go (as I do) to chill out for several weeks at a no-talking monastery in French-speaking Switzerland, but you don't (as I don't) speak French, and, therefore, during lunch each day, you can neither talk to your tablemates nor understand the meaning of the random excerpts from the local French-language newspaper one of the nuns is softly reading aloud to the room over the gentle tinkle of silverware—a ritual designed to keep the community glancingly abreast of some of the latest horrors sure to be unfolding in one place or another out there in the real world—you'll find yourself with basically two alternatives to occupy your time: either you drift into that familiar default state of barely-conscious daydreaming and worry that constitutes the lion's share of your mental activity or you actually pay attention to eating.
Ah, yes, eating.
That's that thing you do when you bite off a chunk of something, chew it a couple of times, and then promptly swallow so you can resume talking again as soon as possible.
So, as the incomprehensible news update drones on in the background, you decide—just for the hell of it, for a change of pace—to interrupt your anxious stream of "thoughts" and start to focus. Inevitably that means you begin to slow down, and as you do, you become aware of what you're doing. And pretty quickly you realize that, hey, there's something in your mouth. It's called "food." And, amazingly enough, it has not only bulk and texture, but taste. A pleasing taste you wouldn't mind spending some time with.
And what's this flowing out from who knows where? Saliva! You remember hearing about saliva. Saliva is your friend. In alliance with your teeth (which are busy crushing the food into smaller and smaller bits so that the digestive processes soon to be performed down in the stomach after you swallow will be that much easier and more effective), saliva and its constituent enzymes are helping both to liquefy and break down the food you've been chewing. And look! Saliva really is your friend. That solid food you'd ordinarily have swallowed by now? It's starting to liquefy. And, look! (Again.) The longer you keep the food in your mouth, that is, the longer you postpone swallowing, the more the saliva keeps coming and coming, and the mushier and mushier the food in there gets.
Well, you'll be!
Habit . . . . cuts off from things which we have witnessed a number of times the root of profound impression and of thought which gives them their real meaning."
And now that you're waking up to what you've habitually failed to notice all these years—now that you're practically studying it, in fact—you see that, once you put food in your mouth, your nearly-irresistible impulse is to chew it for only a moment or two before you hurriedly gulp it down and get it out of there. So, again, just for the hell of it, you come up with something else you've never thought of and immediately try it out: you stop chewing, you let the food rest on your tongue and you . . . do nothing. You don't swallow. You just let it sit there.
And what happens?
More saliva flows out!
Now that your lifelong habit of eating unconsciously has been broken, a door long-closed has been opened and all creative hell seems to be breaking loose, because now another brainstorm hits you and you decide to act on it as well. You press the mass of food resting on your tongue straight up against the roof of your mouth (the "palate" you think it's called, the part of your mouth you mostly taste with, though you haven't given it a moment's thought in decades). And when you press the slop in your mouth up against the palate, you . . . hold it there. This latest experiment earns you an astonishing reward. It's as if your underutilized palate—long overshadowed by the greedy demands of a masticating mouth, swallowing throat, and insatiable stomach—has finally been released from bondage, and in gratitude, opened its floodgates with welcoming saliva. And the biggest surprise thus far? Not only does that saliva keep streaming out of wherever it comes from, but the wondrous intensity of the taste (you detect any number of flavors, even subflavors, where once you'd have sensed, at best, only one) isn't restricted to your palate. No, you can literally feel the pleasure coursing down through your limbs, a sensation so electric it feels illicit.
The newspaper-reading sister has just uttered something barely recognizable ("Zar-koh-zee"? "Oh-bah-mah"?), but you couldn't care less, you're completely immersed in exploring this previously-unknown aspect of how endlessly fascinating you are. You notice—for the first time, ever—that chewing shifts the food away from the taste buds on your tongue and palate onto your hard-working teeth and smacks more of physical labor than sensual entertainment. Getting familiar with the terrain, you decide to become even more conscious with each mouthful. You count the number of your chews—you make them really slow deliberate chews—and stop when you reach five. And then, counting to five again, you let the food rest on your tongue as you once more press the mush up against your palate. Surprise! The taste is rejuvenated and mini-explosions of delight resonate throughout your body. Each time you repeat this five-and-five gambit, delicious, intoxicating bursts of bitterness and sweetness and tartness, pinpricks of flavors, shoot through you—a thrill nearly too much to bear, almost as if you've mainlined a drug.
While a monastery may not provide the most fertile soil for sexual metaphors, one blossoms nonetheless. Up to now, your relationship with food has been not unlike a "quickie"—sort of a "wham, bam, thank you, lamb" relationship—one that's caused you to miss out on the oodles of pleasure that playing with the food in your mouth—the culinary equivalent of foreplay—affords. Did you say "foreplay"? Savoring all those mouth-watering flavors is damn near orgasmic. You simply can't believe how much the dull, habitual way you've approached eating has denied you the opportunity to experience such readily-accessible pleasures.
Why would you ever not eat this way every single time you shoved a forkful of anything into your mouth? How could you have let all this joy go undiscovered, unexperienced for so many years?
Hopeful you'll be able to chew and remain conscious at the same time without lapsing back into the automatic behavior that's kept this hidden world hidden for so long, you attempt to explain your self-defeating behavior to your various selves with one hypothesis after the other:
Perhaps a part of you, in compliance with some overriding principle of self-denial that demands that you not luxuriate in joy, sees this exquisite pleasure as something you don't deserve; or perhaps a utilitarian part of you sees food purely as a vehicle for sustenance and nourishment, and thus rushes it down to the stomach, where hunger seems to reside, where it can start getting to work (letting it frolic in the mouth would be frivolous, pointlessly postponing the inevitable and the essential); or perhaps it's social grace, your considerateness for others, that makes you spare them the ordeal of watching you chew like an animal, or, God forbid, talk while there's still food in there and thus reveal the half-consumed mess you haven't yet consigned to the dungeon below; or perhaps it's not so much about others as it is about you, that sense of shame verging on disgust at this sludge and slop—so beautiful on the plate a moment ago, now sickeningly decomposing in your mouth—another messy biological fact of life, the sight and sound of which you must conceal from public view.
Your reverie ends when you realize that, save for the sound of tinkling silverware, the refectory is completely silent. Today's news briefing has ended. The nuns' reverential silence acknowledges the blessing—the gift—that is food, a gift that, like so many others, habit has made you blind to for too long.
You remember how, as a kid, you were scrupulously taught that eating was a very serious business, one that brooked no nonsense, no kidding around. Only a lifetime later have you learned that, as she was with so many other things, your mother was totally wrong.
You must play with your food.
In fact, foreplay with it.
Photo © Paul Taylor / Corbis
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