Eating Without Speaking In Greenpoint
“The problem’s communication,” Homer Simpson once said about marriage. “Too much communication.” Generally, communication is good—more people should share their true feelings with the people who care about them. But our culture also encourages empty communication, communication for its own sake, and we can become so mired in it that it’s refreshing to take a break. “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something,” Louis C.K. recently said in a much-shared diatribe against smartphones. “That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.” But it’s not just the phones, or the tablets, or the computers doing it. Just sitting with someone face-to-face can have a similar effect.
Every Sunday, Eat Greenpoint hosts a silent dinner: no talking, no music, no gadgets—just the sound of glasses placed down on tabletops and cutlery dinnerware, of washing from the open kitchen, of much sniffling (this time of year, especially during steaming soup), of nervous laughter disguised as coughing. At a recent November gathering, our server brought out four courses of organic, locally sourced, vegan-friendly fare to a room of 15 diners. During the first, a woman not there for the silent dinner opened the door and must have thought we were all insane, or at least part of a cult. Because, Jesus, who eats in utter silence?
Eating became a social act when humans transitioned to civilization from a state of nature. “Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place,” Michael Pollan writes in the introduction to his recent book Cooked. “Sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us. ‘Around that fire,’ [Richard] Wrangham writes, ‘we became tamer.’” What’s left, then, when you take that away?
It began as nervous confusion, but soon settled easily into something transformative: the decivilizing of the overly civilized, the untaming of the too tamed. (The edict had an interesting effect: when vocal communication is verboten, other forms go with it; people looked away rather than meet each other’s eyes. Some sat back and shut them altogether.) This isn’t to say we became animals, but that we became our unabashed selves.
The din of city life is not just in the commotion around us but in our constant, wearying response to it. We communicate incessantly not just through devices but also through our voices, our eyes, and our body movements, not just to others but also to ourselves. It’s not sitting down to eat that asks us every once in a while to remove ourselves from this cycle—it’s our lives. But if a few plates of food provide an excuse to withdraw from reaction and thus action, to live comfortably and only within ourselves for a moment, then so be it. Eat Greenpoint’s silent dinners make solitude sociable, and teach (or reinforce) the ability to be contently alone while surrounded by other people—the importance of being yourself, and thus by yourself.