Food rituals make light in winter

A column by Emma Waldinger: Eating food in familiar ways is the light that gets me through.
Illustration depicts a cat next to a Chemex and coffee cup against a dark window.
Illustration by Tim Burton

Last winter, I tried to make a habit of setting the table for myself, even when I ate alone, which happened more often than not. As a 20-something, I follow a restless schedule and don’t always have a lot of spare change to spend on meeting friends for dinner. I have learned to make do.

Sometimes this meant laying out a placemat with a mismatched cloth napkin, silverware, a glass of wine and a lit candle on the coffee table in front of my TV — because, let’s face it, eating alone at a four-person dining table can be a bit bleak. And somehow, wrapping myself in a blanket on the couch with a bowl of dumplings or fried rice while “Queer Eye’s” Fab 5 demonstrate a French tuck on the screen, isn’t.

The location doesn’t really matter, though. When darkness lasts forever, as it seems to in Wisconsin’s January, it feels imperative to gravitate toward what makes us feel human. Rituals around eating have been a part of civilization since the beginning. Setting the table, offering gratitude, sitting down to eat at 7 p.m. like clockwork, claiming your spot, dessert after dinner — these are all rituals. Do you make coffee the same way every morning? I do. Dark roast in my Chemex made with freshly ground beans and water boiled on the stove. Almost always one cup and always taken black.

It seems the easiest rituals to make habitual are the ones that might be slightly addictive. But if it’s really just about the caffeine, why don’t I pour a packet of instant coffee in my to-go mug, top it off with microwaved water and call it complete? There has to be something to crawling out of bed and switching on the stove before I feed my cats; the shock of the kettle whistling when I’ve forgotten about it and am halfway through a shower; opening the bag of coffee beans and breathing in deeply; spilling the fresh grounds all over the counter as I try to transfer them from the bowl of my grinder into a glass jar; and pouring unpredictable loops of hot water from a liquid measuring cup (yes, I know a gooseneck kettle would be more effective) over the grounds to drip through the filter.

The process is important. It’s how we set the scene for our lives and find meaning in ourselves. What does making pour-over coffee with freshly ground beans say about me? What kind of person am I if I eat dinner in front of a screen? How am I perceived if I skip breakfast and eat an early lunch? I don’t think there’s one right way to do it. The idea is to find the rituals that bring you comfort — those that make you feel satisfied and connected and, in the winter, filled with light.

Emma Waldinger is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

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