Family dinners. These two words conjure up memories in everyone, activating heart and mind. For some of us, this means memories of not having had the “traditional” American style, family dinner. You know, sisters and brothers with a couple of adults, gathering around the table, everyone reaching for the meat and potatoes at the same time. All are smiling and chattering. In truth, the family dinner takes on many guises.
When I was a child, our family dinnertime was most often quiet. For one thing, everyone was busy eating and we weren’t allowed to talk with food in our mouth. Another reason is it was served most often, during the evening news. Noise at the table was to be not loud, so that my father could hear Lou Colby reporting the weather and later, Walter Cronkite, relating the stories of the day. I remember two dinners that were nearly mute. The day Kennedy was shot and when NASA reported landing on the moon.
In later years, with little exception, only my mother and I were at the family table. On Fridays, when she worked late, we would have dinner in front of the TV. Every other time, meals were served at the dining room or kitchen table. I am glad this was so, as it provided a sense of stability at a time of instability. When I had my own family, I preserved this effort by endeavoring, even with busy schedules, to always have at least one meal a day enjoyed together at the dining room table. I had one, unwavering rule. Unless it was absolutely necessary to leave, everyone stayed, until everyone finished.
I remember the time when my eldest daughter invited a young man home to dinner, during which, she and her sister conversationally recited lines from favorite TV shows; persisting in starting and ending each other sentences. At some point, he looked at them, then across at me and asked if they always do that. Yes. Yes they do. We didn’t see him again. To this day, I think our family may have been a little overwhelming. There was the time I bought hardshell lobsters, which literally needed hammers to crack them open. We all still remember lobster juice spraying everywhere! At one meal, when the kids were home from college, it was suddenly noted by everyone, at the same time, that all was quiet. Every dish was empty. Every plate void of the tiniest morsel. It was a stunning moment.
The family dinner, as a time of gathering around food, doesn’t have to be in the evening. There are families whose schedules make breakfast-time when family gathers. My mother served my siblings and me dinner, before my father got home from his 3-11 shifts, but on the weekends, we would get up and have dessert with him when he arrived home. It’s not about the time or particular food. It’s about the event.
A family dinner, defining family as everyone we engage with on this journey we call life, isn’t necessarily about a particular location. Here in America, we are blessed to have people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Food, chatter, laughter and tears are shared on front porches, back decks, picnic style on floors or maybe in front of the TV. Even the homeless often have traditions of gathering on sidewalks or in shelters to share the food they have. I like the family style sharing of Western culture, loosely mimicking the Asian style of serving food on platters for all and makes no difference where it is served.
As a sharing of food, the family dinner is a universal understanding. No matter the culture, there are homes where it is considered thoughtless to not offer visitors what food and beverage we have and engage in conversation. Like a handshake, food sharing suggests trust and goodwill. This is the essence of all shared meals. Each person does not need to talk, some may only listen. There may be laughter. There may be tears. It may be for all, simply a time of quiet and reflection.
I had a friend relate that when visiting what might be perceived to be an unfortunate country, natives offered food. She was embarrassed that they who had little would give her food. We must understand, it is not the food, but what the sharing represents. It is a prosocial event that offers anyone the opportunity to be altruistic, fair and cooperative. When we share food, light happens.