How does a person express thanks for food when eating in a public place? A complex rope of personal faiths, rituals and cultures weave together into the critical moment when food is brought to the table in a restaurant or coffee shop.

This is not a new problem. Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell did a classic picture in the 1950s of a 13-year-old boy in a restaurant with his grandmother. They have folded their hands to say a table prayer, but the teen is looking out the corner of his eyes and is humiliated, seeing two “cool” older teens laughing at him for acting like a child.

The grace at meals ritual is complex. For many folks, saying grace is required when a meal involves an entrée. Ice and ice cream do not require a grace.

This is a problem for me. A 900-calorie chef salad requires a prayer, but a 1,200-calorie dessert does not?

Several times a week I eat in the Salvation Army cafeteria with my coworkers and with men just out of federal prisons or in early treatment for addictions. Sometimes I think the more serious their crimes and the more severe their addictions, the more elaborate and conspicuous their prayers are before eating.

Some of them admit to me, they are actually saying, “Protect us from the food we are about to eat,” rather than expressing gratitude for it.

To be asked to say grace before a meal can be a challenge. Bill Moyer, the TV journalist, was once a top aide to President Lyndon Johnson after dropping out of a Baptist seminary. Knowing that Moyer was in a crisis of faith, LBJ asked Moyer to say grace at a lunch at the LBJ ranch. Moyer began to mutter a quiet prayer.

The president said, “Speak up!”

Moyer had the presence of mind to say, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

A well-known church youth minister was asked to say grace in a restaurant with a group of clergy-who doubted both his faith and his orthodoxy. They asked him to say grace to test both. He stood up on his chair and commanded the attention of the entire group of diners.

“These men are ministers and they want me to pray. Will you all be quiet and close your eyes and bow your heads?”

Needless to say they did not ask him to say grace in a restaurant again.

A friend of mine suspects his ultra-conservative in-laws ask him to give a table blessing to see if his faith is intact after attending a liberal seminary. He often defers and asks his wife to give the blessing to see if they are willing to allow women to have a leadership role.

Some congregations “Bless the food” while in the sanctuary before heading off to the dining room for a potluck. Apparently elapsed time does not alter the efficacy of the prayer. A 10-minute interval is OK.

Could they in the name of efficiency save time and bless the potlucks for the coming month?

Friends of mine who entertain wildly diverse people of all faiths and non-faiths in their home have retained the tradition from when their child was very young. They ask all guests to hold hands in a circle and for a moment gratitude is expressed for food, family and friendship.

Everybody likes eating at their place.

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