Saying Grace: Mealtime Blessings Around the World
Whether we bow our heads over pasta or pad thai, giving thanks connects us not only with a higher power, but with each other.
Everyone does it: from the Burmese and Balinese to the Inuit and Icelanders. In the United States, almost half of us do it, making it one of the most common of our shared rituals.
We give thanks for our food with prayer, with rituals and dance, before meals, after eating, and in praise of a bountiful harvest. We thank someone, or something—mother, a god, the earth, the sun, the soil, the rain, or the people joining us at the table.
Theologist Laurel Schneider, the author of Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, said that in the time before pasteurization and refrigeration, “blessings may have been part purification (we pray that this food will not mysteriously kill us)” along with simple gratitude and the practice of “pleasing God/the spirits/the ancestors.” Acknowledging, she says, that the food “is not ours to begin with, but loaned to us” by those entities keeps us humble and in proper harmony. “I do like the universality of blessing food,” she says. “It reminds us that our bodies are part of spirituality, too.”
Beyond the spiritual, our bodies benefit from a pause to give thanks: “Taking a moment of gratitude before you start eating,” says chef and nutritionist Rebecca Katz, author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, “gives you the opportunity to breathe and fully take in the sight and smell of your food.” That pause, she says, puts our body in a parasympathetic state, taking us out of our default “fight or flight” state and making food easier to digest. Now that's something to be thankful for.
Birkat Hamazon is Hebrew for “blessing on nourishment” or, often, “grace after meals.” Though the Birkat has several stanzas, Jews all over the world say a simple, single line before eating, depending on the food they are blessing. For fruit, for instance, it is Blessed are you, lord our god, king of the universe, who has given us fruit of the vine.
Hinduism considers food a gift from God, to be treated with respect, for what we eat determines our mental and physical well-being. Before it is eaten, food is offered to God, in a ritual (called prasada) that is believed to purify the mind, body, and spirit. One blessing goes: “May the Lord accept this, our offering, and bless our food that it may bring us strength in our body, vigor in our mind, and selfless devotion in our hearts for His service.”
The Japanese start a meal bowing the head, bringing the hands together, and saying itadakimasu, which means “I am receiving.”
Thanks for a meal is simple:
Earth, when I am about to die
I lean on you
Earth, while I am alive,
I depend on you.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
“The Spirit Bowl is taught as a way of life; it is second nature when sitting down to partake of food or beverage that you feed the spirits," says Travis Suazo of the Laguna/Acoma and Taos Pueblo. "When the Spirit Bowl gets full, the contents are sprinkled upon the earth with an accompanying prayer and cornmeal or corn pollen.”
A simple grace:
To those who have hunger,
And to those who have bread,
Give the hunger for justice
In the official birthplace of American Sign Language, gratitude for food is expressed using the sign for thank you: The signer moves a hand from the mouth forward to display a flat palm.
Burma, Laos, and Cambodia
Most Theravada Buddhist monks eat only once or twice a day and bless their food with this chant:
Wisely reflecting, I use this food not for fun, not for pleasure, not for fattening, not for beautification, but only for the maintenance and nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the Spiritual Life. Thinking thus, I will allay hunger without overeating, so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.
Though many Pakistani families say an entire Surah Fatiha (a complete chapter of the Koran), many precede each meal by simply saying, “Bismillah Al-rahman, Al-rahmin,” which means “I begin in the name of God most gracious and ever merciful.”
As in Pakistan, Muslims in most Islamic countries say the “Bismillah ar-Rahman” before eating a meal, then pray together at the end by saying, “Thank you, O Allah, for feeding us and making us amongst the believers.”
“Tibetans make offerings not just when we sit down to eat," says Lobsang Yeshi of Radio Free Asia. "In many traditional families, whoever makes the tea offers the first tea in a special cup or bowl at the altar before anyone is served. It is called ‘Ja-Phue,’ or ‘best tea’ or ‘first of the tea.’"
The Selkirk Grace was a 17th-century mealtime prayer popularized when Scottish poet Robert Burns delivered it at a feast given by the earl of Selkirk:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
The Barasana people of the Vaupés region eat the same food every day, a meal that represents the collaboration of male and female productivity. Women plan, harvest, and cook manioc (a staple starch), and men bring home meat they have hunted. The two foods are joined by a spicy pepper relish, which scholars say symbolizes (and celebrates) the sexual intercourse that unites a married couple.
In the highlands of northern Luzon, Igorot men and women give thanks for a bountiful rice harvest by performing a dance called bumayah, which includes movements imitating a rooster scratching the ground.
Eastern Orthodox religions traditionally offer “first fruits” as a form of thanksgiving and blessing. The annual cycle of first fruits begins with the blessing of grapes, or other early-ripening fruits. As the harvest season progresses, the first fruits of each species are brought to the church to be blessed, using a prayer that often asks “that the Lord may receive our gift unto His eternal treasury and grant us an abundance of earthly goods. . . .”
In Pohnpei, a chief “taboos” a food that is about to come into season; no one may eat it until the chief announces a first-fruit ceremony, during which the community members pick the fruit and give it to the chief in a basket called a kiam. For the season of breadfruit, called kehmei, he blesses the breadfruit in the basket and distributes the food among the people who first donated it. Once the chief has blessed the crop, families can replicate the ceremony with the mother or father doing the blessing. “But the food is not just generic food when it goes back down the chain,” says Cornell University anthropology professor Jane Fajans. “Instead it instantiates the power of the chief . . . and the food the people eat is imbued with the values of community and cooperation.”
The Osage Indian people, who populated the Ohio River Valley and what is now Kentucky, celebrate the first corn of the season with a song, exuberantly sung by a mother as she runs to tell her children of the new crop.
North American Plains
Various American Indian tribes smudge the food (and themselves) with sage smoke and give thanks to the Great Spirit for “the resources that made the food possible, to the earth mother that produced it, and the people who labored to harvest it and put it on the table.” Then they ask that the wholesomeness of the food bring out the wholeness of the Spirit within each of them.
Boy Scouts in Missouri practiced the “S-F” grace, named after the S-F Scout Ranch in Knob Lick. The prayer is often said when there are Boy Scouts of mixed religions at the table:
For the gifts of food and freedom
And the hills to roam
For the crimson sunsets
And the Earth our home
For the stars at night
And the gentle wind and trees
We thank you Great Spirit
For all of these
“O Dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly . . .” —Ben Stiller, saying grace in Meet the Parents