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School Lunch and Civilization

At his school in Rome today, my son will be eating pasta with tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies and garlic for his first course. Then he will eat little bite-sized pieces of pork cooked till tender and falling apart in a flavourful sauce – alla cacciatora. After the meat, he’ll eat a crunchy, fresh fennel salad and finish off the meal with an orange. If he’s thirsty, he’ll drink water. The food is all organic and it’s freshly prepared every morning.

The food itself – the ingredients, the recipes, the quality – is all important. I’m happy that he eats such a nutritious and substantial lunch every day. But there’s another component to this school lunch that is as important as the food itself. The school meal is helping to teach these children to be civilized, respectful, thoughtful members of society.

“The table is an important place to learn the art of conversation, especially across generations. It provides an opportunity to feel connected and to develop trust in others. Civility at the table is a cornerstone of civil society and democratic processes,” writes Janet A. Flammang in her excellent book “The Taste for Civilization.” She emphasizes the importance of finding your voice at the table by learning the intricacies of manners and social expectations. She draws on the work of the social anthropologist Margaret Visser who said that humans sharing food likely shaped many elements of their societies. We often think of food as reflecting different cultures, but perhaps it’s the food and the particular rituals of sharing it that creates the culture.

The Roman school lunch carries on this tradition. There is one menu for the whole school. There is no accommodating picky eaters, so this means that the whole school shares the same food. The teachers sit with their classes and remind the children to place their napkins on their laps, to hold their forks with their fingers rather than their fists, to use their forks and not their pudgy little hands. She encourages them to work together to pass the bread basket or the olive oil, and she asks them to wait until everyone is ready before they begin to eat. The teacher also facilitates the children’s attempts at conversation. They eat together and they talk. The teacher lets the children decide what to talk about, but she participates and moderates, she nudges and encourages. She makes sure everyone stays in their seats and she keeps them eating while they converse. They have already learned to wait until the last person is finished before leaving the table. My son is in the first grade. Teachers do this with the nursery school children right through to the eighth grade.

I love that lunch is treated so reverently at this school. This is a private school, but the public school system in Rome, in spite of recent cutbacks, manages to pull off a version of this, too. The children eat in courses, which is traditional in Italy, they eat a variety of foods and they take their time. They also learn to share in the food and in the pleasure and they learn to share ideas, to talk and to learn something about each other.

Today, they will also learn not to put parmigiano on pasta with anchovies.

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