Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Studying our dining habits through a photographer's lens

Dinner in New York, 2014 / A mother and her baby daughter share dinner together in their
Upper West Side home while visiting via Skype with grandmother in Boston.

Eating dinner today involves a lot of multitasking and, increasingly, a lot of media consumption. It didn't always used to be this way.

Once upon a time, the family dinner was a chance for parents and kids to enjoy socializing with each other on any number of topics from school activities to presidential politics. Not so much anymore as dining has shifted from a primary to a secondary activity in our short-attention span-but-hurried lives. Now, it's not uncommon in many dining rooms for a TV set to be on that's airing a favorite program or, maybe, the stereo is playing ambient mood music -- even a radio might be tuned into a baseball game. Of course, for some, TV sets and radios are so old school when an iPad or iPhone are much more portable.

"The spread of the Internet, computers and cellphones in recent years has given people many methods of communication, and dinner has lost its original essence," says New York-based photojournalist Miho Aikawa, who more than four years ago decided to explore the subject of modern dinner by photographing people eating in New York City, focusing primarily on "private dinner moments."

"The changes in society, as well as the people who form them, have led to a shift in how we spend our dinner time," adds Aikawa, who has also studied people eating in Tokyo, too.

I came across Aikawa's excellent series of photographs entitled "Dinner in NY," via a recent feature about her work in Slate.com while (what else?) eating -- lunch not dinner -- and, it got me thinking about how multitasking and media consumption affect how I dine.

Let's see, eating breakfast offers me a chance to listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" on the radio while reading the print edition of The New York Times. At lunch, I alternate between glancing at my news feed on Facebook or perusing The San Francisco Chronicle e-edition on my MacBook Pro. As for dinner, well ... I'm guilty as charged about having the TV set on to watch a sporting event on ESPN or, maybe, "Chopped" on the Food Network, while I nosh on homemade pizza served with a butter lettuce salad, a bowl of fresh-cut Tomatero strawberries and a glass of Kermit Lynch French red wine.

Mind you, my wife and I still use our dinner time to enjoy stimulating conversation about a wide range of topics that include: sports, literature, food, music, travel and gardening. We like to keep it light. Nothing too heavy, although sometimes we might watch The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC whilst we dine. The other night, for something entirely different, we viewed an episode of Jerry's Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that featured Jon Stewart online with our laptop occupying the corner of the dining room table. Seinfeld's online comedy show was welcome company at our dinner table.

"Initially, I had hoped to use this project as a means to provide inspiration and a chance to reflect on the reality and the potential of what dinner is, and can be," Aikawa wrote on her Facebook page. "Of course, there can be many different types of dinner, and the project is not about changing any one's dinner habits. I don't think having dinner with a cell phone, or laptop is bad or wrong. One of my subjects was talking with her grandmother via Skype during her dinner, and it can enhance the pleasure of the table."

Note: Aikwa's series, "Dinner in NY" is on display in this year's edition of The Fence at Brooklyn Bridge Park through October.

Photo  © 2014 by Miho Aikawa Photography.

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