It's at home in pizza joints and great restaurants. It stops time (and overeating).
In my kitchen, we begin our meals by holding hands and bowing our heads. We usually say the short and sweet grace found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: "Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service." Sometimes, when my husband is out of town, I experiment a little bit. Lately, I've offered this haiku by Basho, the 17th-century Japanese poet:
In the twilight rain
These brilliant-hued hibiscus—
A lovely sunset.
I don't have hibiscus, but saying Basho's poem helps me notice, and be thankful for, the magnolia tree out my window, the slow sunset, the pretty table linens. Whether you recite a Zen poem or a Christian prayer, saying grace does good work at the table. On the simplest level, saying grace means offering thanksgiving—grace comes from the Latin gratiarum actio, "act of thanks." To say grace before meals is, among other things, to remember that it was God, not my credit card, that provided my meal. But whether or not you're a believer, a pre-meal thanksgiving recognizes the dozens of people who did hard work to get food to your table—the farmers, the grocery store clerks, the friends or relatives or restaurant chef who transformed a pile of raw vegetables into a bowl of delectable soup.
I'll admit to a certain squeamishness about saying grace in restaurants. Praying at home is one thing, but bowing my head at Wendy's or Jean Georges is quite another. (I never know what to do when a waitress appears as I'm praying. Interrupt myself? Ignore her?) And yet increasingly, I try to overcome my discomfort and boldly say grace at restaurants precisely because I find it so easy, when I go out to eat, to take for granted the low-paid folks who set the table, wash the dishes, and generally make my night on the town possible. To pray before my meal, even if it's awkward, is to remind myself how privileged I am, how much I owe.
Saying grace suggests not only the grazie of thanksgiving but also the calm, gracious elegance of living fully and well. You don't find grace said when people are rushing around, scarfing food, eating over the sink or in the car, polishing off a meal in ten minutes flat. You find grace offered at tables where people sit still, where they're trying to pay attention. Indeed, doctors will tell you that there are physiological benefits to saying grace before meals. People who do it tend to eat more slowly, aiding digestion, while speed eaters don't give their bodies time to register that they're full.
Sometimes I forget to say grace. I fail to say it when I'm ravenous and also when I'm distracted, when eating has nothing to do with intention and everything to do with fueling my body. These hasty meals are probably the times when I need to say grace the most—when I need to pause, feel lucky, and purposefully create a space of repose and awareness in my hectic day. We can't always eat on fine china or by candlelight, but grace is portable. In an age when we so often eat without thinking about it, saying grace can transform a mere meal into an act of celebration, focus, and gratitude.