Life in the 50s: The sound of slithering sausage

I have recently tried to make a rule of not talking with my mouth full. This is not as easy as it sounds.

There was a time when cultured people - at least in our native English-speaking lands - would eat with one hand on the lap, elbows off the table, and would take the time to chew and swallow before opening their mouths to speak. The hand on the lap and the elbow off the table are gone with the wind and I say, good riddance to unnecessary rubbish. But with them went the third cardinal manner of the table: Not speaking with food in your mouth. Today, we are treated to chomped cheese, shredded shallots, masticated meat and blended beets all running in and around twirling tongue and licking lips. Ah, how appetizing. Apparently, everyone believes that what they have to say is so important and enlightening, that to wait a moment - a critical, potentially educational, sometimes surprising moment - is out of the question. Instead, they forget they are eating, don't even notice the taste and texture of their food, and just open their mouths to let their words of wisdom mix with nuggets of nutrition for the viewing and listening pleasure of their audience. How did we descend to these dark depths? It might have something to do with the lost art of waiting. Instant coffee, instant pudding, instant messaging. The remote changes the channel in a split second and if our e-mail program takes half a minute to load, we drum our fingers impatiently on our wood veneer desks. If a moment goes by without us being involved in a task or a form of entertainment, we might, heaven forbid, feel bored. Or even worse, we might feel the twinge of anger or touch of despair waiting for us there just below the surface of consciousness. If we waited that extra moment until we were done chewing and swallowing, we might notice that our breathing has become shallow, descending only to the chest. It might be revealed to us that we are unsure of ourselves and that everyone else is too. We might relax and open up to what is inside and all around us. Waiting the moment it takes to chew and swallow before speaking creates the time and space for unexpected things to happen. Your conversation partner may say something she never would have said had she not been given this extra moment as a gift. An insight may alight that otherwise would not have had the space to land in your overly busy mind. As a practice, I have recently tried to make a rule of not talking with my mouth full. This is not as easy as it sounds. We lack the cultural codes to know how to deal with such a phenomenon. "Where do you live?" the woman I've just been introduced to at a party outside Jerusalem asks. We're standing around the food table, paper plates in hand, munching on organic greens picked from another guest's garden. I have a mouth full of mustard greens and arugula and I remember my new rule. So I chew and chew. I'm not sure what to do with my eyes. Look at her? Look out into the garden? I choose the garden. "Maybe I know the street," she offers. Does she think I didn't hear her? At this point, about three interminable seconds after she's asked her question, I feel I have to act. I bring the fingers and thumb of my right together in the Middle Eastern "wait" signal and try to chew faster. Finally, I am able to name my street, but I feel like a foreigner, an alien, someone who isn't playing by the rules. Some people, I've noticed, solve the problem by putting their open palm smack in front of their mouths as they talk and eat. That way, we are at least spared the sight of slithering sausage - but not the sound. Alas, I belong to that invisible, long-suffering club of people who just can't bear to hear people chewing. This is not a 50s phenomenon; I've suffered from it all my life. I've moved tables in restaurants, seats in movie theaters and thought myself capable of murder when I'd be squished on a packed New York City subway with a pierced teenager incessantly cracking gum in my ear. I have more than once gathered my nerve and apologetically asked someone to please stop cracking their gum ("I know this is weird, but.." "I'm sorry, but I have this thing….") Once at a small meeting, a woman was chomping at her gum, opening her mouth wide between each chew. A South African woman sitting next to her said simply and authoritatively, in that accent that just cannot be impolite, "Please chew nicely." Three little words I have since adopted. Chewing nicely means chewing with your mouth closed. It means waiting to speak until your palate is clear. It's a revolutionary concept. Try it. You may like it. I guarantee the person sitting across from you will.