Photograph by Anthony Stewart, National Geographic
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A woman prays at a domestic altar in the Dominican Republic.
Photograph by Anthony Stewart, National Geographic
The Plate

Considering Grace: The Value of Saying Thank You

I was raised Roman Catholic, which means that I was raised in a family that said grace.

Most nights of my childhood, my parents and my siblings and I sat down to dinner together, and my father said the Catholic version of the prayer before meals: “Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Once I left home, though, saying grace dropped out of my life. For years it wasn’t something I practiced, or even thought about; it was a relic I was content to leave behind, along with martyred saints and fish on Fridays.

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An Amish family gathers around the kitchen table for a midday meal. Photograph by William Albert Allard, National Geographic

Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking the practice of grace. I haven’t become suddenly church-going; like many Americans, “spiritual but not religious” is as close as I come to a path. But as someone who feels compelled to investigate the complexity of the effort it takes to bring food into our lives, I’ve begun to be troubled at the way we dive into meals without a pause to take stock.

I started to contemplate this when I was visiting farms in France last summer. Every meal I’ve experienced there — in a restaurant, in a friend’s house, with strangers — has begun with “Bon appetit!” Your host, or your waiter, says it to you, and everyone at the table says it to each other. For years this seemed to me a charming custom, but not very meaningful; one of those things you learn to do to fit into a new culture, along with keeping both hands above the table and never filling your own glass. But hearing farmers wish it to each other, mere hours after the food they had raised had made its transition from animal to ingredient, made me perceive “Bon appetit in a new way. What I heard was a moment of acknowledgement for the effort they had expended, and appreciation for the pleasure they were about to share.

It didn’t feel mannered or old-fashioned; it felt courteous, and grown-up, and fresh. It felt like a new kind of grace, secular but still heartfelt, and it made me wonder whether I had discarded too quickly a practice that could still contain meaning.

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A wedding party begins its ceremony with prayers at the home of the bride’s father. Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic

Next week, of course, is Thanksgiving: a holiday whose essence is saying Thank You, and which is probably the day in the year when even the most unchurched perform some sort of observance before their meal. With Thanksgiving in mind, I asked friends whether they say grace — and what they said in reply made me realize how many ways there are to express gratitude for the food we eat.

Most of my crowd admitted that they recite a grace just on Thanksgiving; and for many, it is a secular ritual, not a religious one. Most people had had the experience of going around the table at the start of the holiday meal, relating what they were thankful for in the year past, and what they hoped for in the year to come.

Others say grace regularly, and were unabashedly religious, addressing Christ if they were Christian, invoking the name of Allah among the Muslims, or addressing the Creator in the hamotzi, the Hebrew prayer over the most basic food: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

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Men pray on rugs or read Korans beneath limestone columns and arches in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic

Of all the prayers my friends offered, the hamotzi might be my favorite, because it directs believers’ attention to the work of the production of food. Hearing it in English, I started to reframe in my head the act of saying grace: from thanking the deity over the natural world to thanking the world, and the food, themselves.

A friend whose heritage is Japanese shared that just before a meal, she says to herself the phrase “Itadakimasu”; its literal meaning is “I humbly receive,” but she paraphrases its intention as, “We give thanks for the thing that gave its life so that we may eat.” Another friend, a practicing Buddhist, salutes his husband and the meal with his hands in prayer position, which he describes as “a gesture of thanks for the suffering and effort of all the sentient beings that brought that food to us.” He sent me a lovely set of Zen chants for acknowledging the start of a meal, including this one:

We are thankful for the many labors that bring us this food
We eat to support life and to practice the way
This food is for all our relations
We eat this food and awaken with everyone. 

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Women meditate before partaking in a ceremonial meal in Guatemala. Photograph by Luis Marden, National Geographic

As I was mulling over my friends’ responses, and the possible re-entry into my life of saying grace, I ran across something that the writer Anne Lamott said last year:

…we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins. For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear: Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it.

No matter where I stand in my relationship to my own religious tradition, this feels right to me. Food was planted, or birthed; grown or raised; harvested or slaughtered; cleaned, shipped, prepped, cooked, served, for our nourishment. All of those actions deserve respect, and so do the sacrifice of the life of the vegetable taken from the ground or the animal taken into the abattoir.

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A farmer embraces his dog outside his stonewalled field in Inishmore Island, Ireland. Photograph by Winfield Parks, National Geographic

When I go to my friends’ houses next week for the visits that make up my Thanksgiving, I hope to bring that new awareness with me. I’ll hope to be able to phrase a prayer that values the life of the animals, the dedication of its growers and slaughterers, the efforts of our host, and the fellowship of all those who have gathered to share them. And I’ll hope, as well, to bring that back into my life on the far side of the holiday. I’ll keep in mind the phrase that is supposed to have been uttered by the medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhardt:

“If the only prayer you said in your life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.”

Read more about the culture of food in Rebecca Rupp’s article “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.”