When I was a young child, my family would often go to my grandparents’ house for a mid-afternoon Sunday dinner. My grandfather would say grace before we were allowed to start eating. He told me and my siblings that we should bow our heads and clasp our hands together. This was not a ritual we practiced in my own household, as my parents had joined the Unitarian Universalist Society and had decided to leave such things in the past. We would remain quiet as we listened to Grandad’s prayer and then move on to the meal. Saying grace didn’t hold meaning for me. We didn’t even use the word “God” in our household.
Over the years, I’ve engaged in some pre-meal gratitude practices. When I was raising my own children, we would read from a daily inspirational reader, or from a short hand-made book of “Unitarian” graces. When I served as chaplain at Camp Unirondack, we sang one of a number of different graces before the meal.
I have recently begun a new ritual, one that is much more meaningful to me. When Native American peoples refer to “all my relations” in speaking of the plants, animals, and non-living things of the Earth and the Sky, they are not engaging in an intellectual exercise. When a person lives in close proximity to everything of the earth and sky, they develop actual relationships with each entity. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I worked as an environmental consultant, walking parcels of land and delineating wetlands, areas that were under State and Federal protections. As I engaged in this work day after day, I became intimately familiar with the plant communities I encountered.
I became able often to identify plants and trees from a distance by the shape of the leaves, the shade of green, the angle of their branches, each species with its cluster of unique characteristics. I knew how they responded to the rhythms of the seasons –when the wildflowers emerged in spring, when they bloomed, and where I might find them –on a rocky hillside or in damp conditions near a stream, for example. In a similar way in which we come to know the habits and nuances of someone we are close to, I came to know these plants. They became like familiar friends.
I was thinking about this as I began my practice. Before each meal now, I take a few moments to express gratitude to Mother Earth for providing what the plants and animals need to grow and to each plant or animal that contributed to my meal. And I also give thanks to all the people who helped bring this food to my table. I’ve started to make a point of picturing each ingredient before me, the plant or animal from which it came. It’s easy when it comes to the vegetables from my garden. But we live in an age where many of us are very disconnected from the sources of the foods we consume. I remember long ago working with a young woman who didn’t know where hamburger meat came from. That might be an extreme example, but as I continued to engage in saying thank you for my food, I became aware that in some cases, I had no mental image for the plant that produced, say, nutmeg, or lentils, or chocolate.
And so I have begun to educate myself. I now read the ingredient list on my cereal box and on any other processed food I eat. I thank each plant that produced each ingredient. What is malitol? It comes from “starch,” I learn. From corn, I guess. As so I thank the corn plant. I recently made a curried lentil salad. There are eight spices in the curry I create for this recipe. I have looked up nutmeg and seen a picture of the nutmeg tree. I learned that the nut grows inside a fruit. And that the “skin” of the nut is what is used to make allspice, another ingredient in my curry.
I’ve been watching an inspiring series on Netflix called “Down to Earth.” The hosts travel around the world and feature various people and projects contributing to sustainability. It’s exciting to learn about the positive differences they are making. In one episode, featuring a sustainable organic farm in Costa Rica, I saw a cacao fruit being opened up, revealing the seeds inside, which are what is used to make chocolate. I never knew!
I am finding that as I engage in this gratitude practice, I must include the rain, and the sun, the water that runs within the earth. I want to know just how a cacao seed becomes chocolate. I want to “meet” and get to know the plants that produce the tropical spices and other imported foods I use. I want to know where, on what plot of Earth, these plants were grown. And who are the people who are growing these plants and harvesting them and getting them to the grocery store where I purchase them? Are they happy doing what they do? Are they being paid a fair wage? Or are they oppressed and being exploited?
We live in a time when many of us are increasingly disconnected from each other and from the Earth. My mealtime gratitude practice feels important to me. It’s a way that I can eat more consciously and to develop a greater feeling of kinship with the plants and animals that sustain and nourish me, and with the people who make it possible for those foods to come to my table. Because we are in a relationship and I want to honor that. It seems the least I can do.