After a long, tiring week of doing business in Europe along with two American colleagues, we settled in for the weekend in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg, while delightful in itself as a city to tour by foot, was simply a launching site for our wine tour that weekend. My former boss had been working just outside of Strasbourg at the time and recruited a french woman from the office to show us the sights. She did a fantastic job leading us through one small town after the other along the Route des vins d’Alsace where we sampled the Rieslings, Gewurztraminer, Tokay Pino Gris and other white wines characteristic of the region.
I learned a lot about wine that weekend, but the most important lesson came during Saturday’s dinner. It was a modest restaurant who’s name escapes me – tucked into the woods on a hill with a stone exterior reminiscent of a small castle. When dinner started, we Americans attacked each course with exuberance as it arrived, but something completely different was happening with the French woman who sat next to me. My eyes jumped back and forth between her face and her plate as she performed some mysterious slow acrobatics with her knife and fork. She dragged her knife slowly through the beautifully-prepared sauce and caringly wiped it over an impossibly small piece of terrine in a caressing kind of way. “What the hell is she doing?” I wondered to myself, trying to keep focused on the conversation. I cut off a big chunk of quail and chewed aggressively followed by a quick bite of bread and a healthy gulp of wine. Soon, I sat in front of an empty plate as she progressed slowly through the whole dish occasionally stopping to set down her fork to engage more in conversion before resuming her careful, thoughtful consumption. She was acting as if the food was incredibly valuable and every bit must be savored. “Doesn’t she understand that if she eats faster the next course will come out of the kitchen sooner!”
I slowly came to understand that the food was incredibly valuable and should be savored and enjoyed slowly. After all, I’d traveled thousands of miles to be there, the chef had labored over the dish, I was in vibrant, intelligent company, and I was younger than I ever would be again. Of course I should have slowed down and savored the moment.
It’s not only the French or even Europeans who eat this way (certainly not all French people have the same habits either). In Glasgow, Scotland, I once ate at a restaurant where the meal was broken up into distinct stages, each with it’s own environment like how changing the scenery between acts of a play makes the story more interesting and engaging. We started off in a sort of lounge area with overstuffed chairs and a cozy living-room like atmosphere. It was here that we would casually peruse the menu over a drink and place our orders with the waiter, but only when we were good and ready. Then, we were brought into the dining room for a the main dinner. After desert, we moved to a room with high tables and no chairs where we stood and chatted more over coffee. Each change of scenery brought more awareness to our environment and asked us to pause to enjoy the food and the total experience.
OK, France, Scotland – both western countries and in the whole scheme of things, not too different from each other and known for their generally more relaxed approach to life vs. to go-go-go productivity of the United States. But what about another hard-working industrialized nations? Surely they must embrace our fast-food, TV-dinner culture. Yes and no. Sometime between my 40 trips to Japan and the time I spent living in Tokyo for much of 2007 and 2008, I came to understand that the the Japanese know well how to relax over a meal too. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of quick raman noodle lunches in Tokyo Central Station on the way to catch a train. But to balance things out, there were the many business dinners at the local izakaya and a few dinner parties in Japanese homes. Fine slivers of yellow-fin sashimi served over chisso leaf on a long rustic ceramic platter. Natto mixed with meguro (fermented soybeans with tuna sashimi) emits a pungent yet intriguing aroma. The food was always beautifully presented and this alone was enough to give you pause – to sit back and observe for a moment before it all disappears.
But what took me by surprise was not that the food was unusual (I expected that!), but in the amount of restraint my Japanese friends took in devouring it. It was more like a slow grazing from the common dishes spread around the table. Taking a bit and then settling back to talk or drink some more. No hurry to snatch up the last piece of toro before someone else gets it. Just casually and slowly enjoying the time. Being there with the food.
Since that weekend in Alsace, I’ve worked (sometimes struggled) to practice more mindful eating — being fully present during the meal and aware of the tastes, textures, feelings and emotions associated with food. This is nearly impossible with young children at the table, but still, I try not to eat in front of the TV, the computer, or while reading. Just be there with the food and listen to what it has to offer. The Center for Mindful Eating, an not-for-profit focused on education in the principles and practices of mindful eating, expands the concept further to include choosing food that is both enjoyable and nourishing, acknowledging your responses to food without judgement, and improving your awareness of hunger and satiety clues from your body. There is even some evidence that mindful eating may help with weight control. Whether you can loose weight this way or even care, it seems obvious to me that mindful eating would have benefits in promoting of stress reduction and overall health.
Thich Nhat Hahn, the venerable Buddhist teacher, puts it like this “When we are mindful, we recognize what we are picking up. When we put it into our mouth, we know what we are putting into our mouth. When we chew it, we know what we are chewing. It’s very simple.” As he explains, if you are not there with your food, the food isn’t there either. You should hold only the food, not your worries, your job, your plans. You should chew just the food. By pausing for a moment to realize the food, to be there, only then does the food become real.
So what does this have to do with chocolate? Chocophiles know that fine chocolate should be savored slowly and with full awareness. I’m guilty of eating a few pieces in front of the TV, but when I taste chocolate for the blog reviews, I always work in a quiet environment, free of distraction and focus on how all my senses respond to the chocolate. Think about the environment in which you enjoy your chocolate. Try setting a separate time for enjoying chocolate with friends and family – after a meal or as it’s own “tasting” -everyone sharing their impressions and opinions. Eat small pieces taking time to pause and reflect. It becomes more than just what you are eating, but your awareness of the whole experience. Also, the better the chocolate, the deeper and bigger the experience. We don’t need to eat large pieces of truly fine chocolate since smaller ones will give us a wonder range of tastes and sensations. They give us much more to reflect on. Fine chocolate demands that we be present since the experience is so much more rich.
The practice of mindfulness takes constant practice over years to master. One simple way to begin, one that can have immediate impact, is to be mindful of how we eat. Mindful of chocolate.
Please share your ideas and comments on eating chocolate mindfully.