Despite reading and writing about food for a living, I often forget to taste my food. I eat dinner leftovers for breakfast without even heating them up. I eat lunch quickly because I have things to do. I graze on snacks we have in the newsroom. I'd like to consider myself a mindful eater, but in reality, I probably err more on the side of a mindless eater.
So one night last week, I ate dinner in total silence with a roomful of strangers.
The venue was Eat Restaurant in the hipster locus of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where for the past couple of months, New Yorkers have been going to try Nicholas Nauman's experiment in silent dining.
Mindful eating, the notion of being more "present" during mealtime, is one strategy to reconnect with the food we put in our bodies. It sounds like my kind of diet -- one in which you can concentrate on taste rather than having to give up gluten, dairy, sugar or whatever food group du jour is terrible for you.
Nauman, the restaurant's event planner and managing chef, was inspired to host these bi-monthly dinners after having silent meals at an Indian monastery.
My foray into spiritual evolution through eating didn't start out well. We were late and the last people seated. I was not relaxed. In fact, I was pretty annoyed -- the restaurant was hot, I was frustrated about being late, and was just generally grumpy due to the cloudy weather.
Nauman greeted the 24-person crowd and instructed everyone to turn off their cell phones before the meal began. Then, my boyfriend and I smiled at our dining companions seated with us at the communal table -- two chemists from Harlem and two women from the neighborhood -- and said nothing.
I was ready to be enlightened. Would I eat less and/or slower since I was more focused on the food and not the people? Would I experience a heightened sense of taste?
When the salad course arrived, I was actually extremely self-conscious. Perhaps I was chewing too loudly and disturbing other patrons. And my nose was running a bit -- was my sniffling ruining the mood? The salad greens were really hard to cut; I was convinced everyone must have thought I was a savage as I gave up using my knife and shoveled large pieces of greens into my mouth. I wasn't experiencing any sort of taste nirvana; I was just trying to finish the course without anyone noticing I was a sniffling mess who may have chewed with my mouth open a couple of times.
While the salad was tasty enough, it wasn't anything special. But I was finally able to relax during the soup course because the celery root puree tasted like something a friend might make you on a cold night. I felt nurtured. It was at this point that I realized I didn't feel like I was dining in a restaurant or participating in a strange social experiment. I just felt content with the fact that someone was feeding me, and the food was good.
During the next two courses, I didn't have any deep thoughts or learn intimate truths about myself that would ultimately lead me to become a better person. I was happy to eat quietly, silently observe the setting and think about the food I was putting in my body. I was calm. I felt more relaxed than I had the whole weekend. There was nothing to distract me at this dinner -- the noises from the kitchen and the movements of other diners eventually became part of the background.
After dessert, Nauman thanked everyone for coming, and there was a round of applause. People milled about and reflected on the experience. I turned my phone back on, and realized that I hadn't missed it the entire time. I wasn't bothered by the fact that I didn't post the apple cinnamon crepes on Instagram or check my email for more than two hours. And mostly, I realized that I didn't miss anything by having my phone off and my mouth shut.
Our table had mixed reactions about the meal -- my boyfriend was bored and the two women, who looked zen-like throughout the meal, said they had hoped for a more playful experience. The chemists were fairly nonplussed.
Will I make silent dinners a regular part of my routine? Probably not. But when I'm eating dinner at home, I will remind myself to shut the laptop, put my phone far away and appreciate the food in front of me. A convivial dinner with friends is one of my favorite activities, but a silent one can occasionally be equally enjoyable.
This story appears in Issue 73 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Nov. 1in the iTunes App store.