Breaking Bread, Nourishing Connections—People With and Without Disabilities Together at Mealtime, by Karin Melberg Schwier and Erin Schwier Stewart. Baltimore: Brookes, 2005.
There are many mealtime books for persons with disabilities, but none as warm, instructive, and expansive as this one. It contains a magnificent concatenation of mealtime stories, tips, actions, attitudes, and even some down-to-earth recipes from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Sudan, Ireland, Italy, and Australia. The focus is tightly on persons with all kinds of disabilities and persons without such obvious limits. Over 50 contributors shared what they did to make mealtimes more rich, joyous, mutually valuing of one another, and sometimes holy.
To quickly catch the book's spirit, one only needs to thumb through the pages and view the 56 photographs. After I did it, my mind fixed immediately on close Italian neighbors who are forever saying to me, “Come over and eat with us. We have abundanza!” This book is awash with that kind of welcoming and heartwarming abundance.
The book is obviously the brainchild of an extended family called Schwier. Karin Schwier is a journalist and editor of an award-winning newsmagazine, Dialect, as well as an author of a string of books, all aimed at giving assistance and dignity to persons with intellectual disabilities. Her stepdaughter, Dr. Erin Schwier Stewart, is an occupational therapist who supplies a rich technical understanding of what can go on during mealtimes with persons having disabilities. J. Spencer Schwier, a professional folk artist, produced “Gathering” for the cover. In the spirit of Grandma Moses, he painted 15 diverse persons feasting together around a large table. Karin's husband Richard, an ever-present fixture in the Schwier kitchen, serves as an advisor. Jim Schwier, the son of Richard and stepson of Karin, serves as the in-kitchen spark plug for many of these remarkable family gatherings. His likeable face can be easily recognized in 11 of the book's photographs. Considering the vast number of shared international mealtime experiences, it is clear that another book of this magnitude will not be written for a long, long time.
Brookes publishing company should be commended for printing this timely book. The company published an earlier one, Mealtimes for Persons With Severe Handicaps, that came to them via Random House and University Park Press in 1986. It is now out of print. As the team leader of that earlier book, I can honestly say the old one needed to die, and this new one needed to come alive. In the earlier book our attempt was to rescue persons with disabilities from awful mealtime practices that were first generated in crowded institutional wards, oversize group homes and nervous families. It included numerous warnings about rapid feeding, “bird feeding,” unnecessary tube feeding, and wrong-positioned feeding while lying on the back—often taking place in noxious, foul-smelling, noise-filled atmospheres. Karen Green McGowan, the team's registered nurse, described these hurry-up-and-be-done-with-it practices as “the quiet little murders” of the spirit and the body of persons who could not even begin to protect themselves from the thrusts of spoons held by unfeeling hands.
The new book rises and shines as it draws its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the growing understanding and respect for persons with disabilities. In the new book the authors talk more about enriching mealtimes, instead of perfunctory feeding. The authors even spelled out their own manifesto:
So what do we mean by mealtimes for the purposes of this book? As authors intimately connected to family and friends with disabilities, we propose an expanded definition. We are looking at mealtime opportunities for people of all ages, cultures and living situations; for people with friends and without; and for people whose disabilities are profoundly challenging as well as for those who can, with a little support, participate easily. To us, no disability precludes the sharing of an enjoyable mealtime experience. These opportunities for intimate one-to-one interactions that we collectively call mealtimes—including planning, shopping, selecting, preparing, and eating—can involve all sorts of skills, talents, information gathering, community presence, social value, sensory experiences, and human involvement.
At first, readers may wonder how to quickly digest everything on this gigantic smorgasbord table of experiences and ideas. Some may choose to approach it like many of us did when The Whole Earth Catalog was published some years ago. Like this mealtime book, the Catalog needed to be read in bits and pieces. For example, one might start by merely browsing the photographs, as mentioned earlier.
Next, readers might skip-through the book again by reading only the “Tidbits.” There are 102 tiny bits of information that appear as sidebars throughout the book and in an appendix. These tidbits fall into five categories: Good Ideas (e.g., “Turn off the cell phone and television at mealtimes”); Food for Thought (“Never talk past a person you are eating with. Talk to that person”); Positioning (“One's mouth and hands work better when one's trunk and shoulders have a firm base of support”); Gadgets (“If adapted utensils are needed, respect the person's age. A Winnie The Pooh tippy cup is fine for a 3-year-old, but what does that say about a 30-year old?”); Safety and Health (“Taking a CPR and first aid course is never a waste of time”). These items and many more help readers to suddenly pay special attention to things that can so easily be overlooked.
After that, readers may choose to browse the recipes in the back of the book. Two of them (Skinny Fries and Skinny Man Chili) caught my eye. I instantly recognized that these recipes were fun things that friends might cook together.
It is expected that many readers will tackle the numerous short and long stories in the main body of the book in segments (e.g., might read daily reflections). Many will become memorable. A few of those that stick in my mind: Al Etmanski's tender story, “Diana and Joan–The Gift of Communion”; Raffath Sayeed explaining why in his culture one must “Never Lead With the Left [Hand]”; Jean Vanier's reflection on “Community and Growth;” Dick Sobsey's “Pass the Understanding, Please,” describing his son's agonizing situation that cleared out a Burger King in one minute; Goomblar Wylo's “Consider the Source,” offering a blessing for the animal that gave its life to feed others. Then there is Darlene Leister's “I Wish Mom Coulda Seen Me Make a Cupcake.”
Persons who sincerely want to make their mealtimes more than they presently are now will profit immensely from the reading of this book. Be prepared to come away from it with new techniques and memories that will be hard to forget.