Sit down, America. Eat!

Reading about the latest trend in America's uncivilized eating behavior nearly put me off my breakfast the other day.

If you, as most Americans seem to do, skipped breakfast that day, you may have missed that New York Times article about snacks - especially, snacks on the run - replacing the main course in American eating.

All of us have been guilty of heading out the door in a hurry, toast in mouth, apple at the ready. But it's the portrayal of America's mindless feeding on processed snack foods that alarms. It's the sort of food and lifestyle that don't require a knife and a fork and a chair and table to eat.

Some people may counter that you've won if you can eat a slice of pizza and drink a can of soda while skateboarding (which was actually captured in a Times photo with the article). It's eating and leisure combined in one neat trick.

But eating is a leisure activity in itself in most parts of the planet. And in many countries it's a social event as well.

Spend any time in Russia and you'll realize that the ritual of squeezing around the kitchen table sharing food is one of the most enduring features of Russian hospitality. You may be overfed, and asked to eat more than your share of fried potatoes and sour-cream-based sauces than you thought humanly possible, but you can't deny the philosophy behind the act.

To eat together is to share, and to share something as precious as food is a serious act of generosity indeed.

Or, close your eyes and picture a typical Italian scene. What do you see? A huge table under the trees with groaning platters of pasta and vegetables, fresh fruit, and a boisterous family talking, laughing, and eating at once. The food itself is simple enough, homemade probably, and everyone's sharing the event.

And in France they go one step beyond. The favorite subject of French dinner parties and even family meals will often be an evocation of meals past. Not one minute after you've tucked into a sublime meal of roast chicken with garlic and potatoes, chives and cream it begins: Remember that chicken we ate last year in Bresse? Remember how your friends Colette and Philippe made it with olives and onions? And floodgates of reminiscence open.

Eating together - and eating well - is fundamental to the quality of one's life.

Care to flip back to the other image on your mental TV screen? Pizzas, donuts, hot dogs, humongous bottles of soda, all guzzled and quaffed while sitting in your car, on the street, at your desk, or wherever you happen to be at the time.

I'll confess, I snack, too. So when I moved to America in 1994 I thought I'd be in heaven.

But the American (culinary) way had its dilemmas. There's that very American horror of eating in the dark. I know now why the popcorn box is so huge when you go to the movies: so you don't miss when you tuck in.

I could never undo those easy-to-undo packets of peanuts or chips. Sometimes, I'd wail, what happened to the knife and fork? And forgive my naivet, but cup holders in cars? I thought drinking and driving was an offense in most of the civilized world.

There's sacrifice in all this snacking convenience. If you have no structured mealtimes in your day, you are probably never going to eat structured meals.

You don't need to be obsessed with food to appreciate the real meal with knives, forks, and that magnificent ritual of sharing food with family or friends without having to stand up, drive the car, or discuss business on a mobile phone at the same time. It doesn't have to be un-American - I can recommend it.

* Lindy Sinclair is an Australian freelance writer who has lived in Moscow, New York, and now London.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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