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Happy Meals 

Edible Complex

Published June 8, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Some families bond around raising Dobermans or rooting for the Red Sox. Ours centers largely on sit-down meals. For close to a quarter-century, my husband David and I have made eating together a top priority. We don't just do dinner every day, but also sit down to breakfast each morning and share lunch whenever we're both at home.

As parents, we've handed our habit down. Ever since our children could sit up and chew, we've force-fed them certain expectations: Come to the table when you're called; sit up straight and put your (cloth) napkin on your lap; don't start eating until everyone is served; taste at least a bit of everything, even if it's unfamiliar; and don't leave the table -- or read the paper, or pull out your homework, or make a phone call -- until you've been excused or the meal has officially ended.

Establishing this regime was a no-brainer; it's how both of us grew up. My siblings and I would not have dreamed of ignoring the cowbell my mother rang to call us to the table. David and his sister followed a regular routine of after-dinner clean-up duties. When David and I moved in together, we simply applied our upbringing to our new home. When the kids came along, it never dawned on us to change. And it never occurred to our children to question the program -- until they found out from their friends just how "weird" it was. At 16, Sophie raged against what she called our "Norman Rockwell fascism." She made her point while sitting at the table. With her napkin on her lap.

Calais food writer Marialisa Calta has just published a book that underscores how outside the mainstream our family turns out to be. Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the Modern American Family is Sit-Down Meals for Dummies. Its premise is that the dinner table is where kids learn, in Calta's words, "how to be civilized." Recipes that cater to busy schedules, profiles of actual meal-sharing households with two working parents, and such apparently revolutionary tips as "turn off the tube" make the case that dinner time is possible even in today's over-extended, hyper-stimulated homes.

For families who only gather around the table for special occasions, Calta's advice will be a revelation. For us, her book is a reminder of what we've taken for granted: how the life we lucked into makes family meals possible; the unconscious choices we've made to turn that possibility into reality; and what we've gained -- besides good eats -- from tucking in together.

As Calta points out, home-cooked food takes time, and lots of people don't have much of it to spare. It helps that ours is a two-parent household, and that even though both of us work outside the home, at least one of us can be in the door and starting dinner by 6 each day. Since we're both into cooking, whoever gets home first seasons the chicken and slips it in the oven or starts sauteeing onions for homemade spaghetti sauce.

Although we're not organized enough to map out menus in advance, our storage space accommodates enough on-hand ingredients to let us pull together a balanced meal. In my mother's kitchen, the Holy Trinity of vegetable-protein-starch might have translated into a frozen block of spinach, a pork chop and Rice-A-Roni. For us, it could be a Thai-style curry made with coconut milk and tofu, with a fish-sauce-flavored cucumber salad. It's lucky that neither David nor I resents kitchen work. Because we find it relaxing to chop and stir, and interesting to try new things, we don't mind making the effort.

Mornings are harder. We set the alarm early enough to fit in 20 minutes at the table before everyone leaves for the day. I'm in charge of breakfast, since I'm better at multitasking, especially before that first cup of caffeine. If the alarm sounds at 6, I can be dressed and in the kitchen by 6:35 and have breakfast on the table at 6:50 -- eggs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on the other weekdays bagels, toast and cheese, or cold cereal. Every day there's coffee for David, tea for me, milk for Sam and for everyone freshly squeezed orange juice -- the same stuff my father squeezed for us each morning before his daily 45-minute commute from New Jersey to New York City. By 7:10, Sam is out the door to catch his bus to school.

Lots of people would rather sleep in than share a meal -- including our children. Their whining doesn't bother us. Much. We override their complaints because we're convinced the benefits of breakfast outweigh losing 15 minutes of shut-eye. The morning meal lets us touch base before we go our separate ways. It's the perfect time to check in about what's on tap that day -- and for Sam, now 17, to remind me that phrases like "on tap," and my morning chipperness in general, are intolerable.

The dinner hour also comes at a cost. Assemb-ling everyone simultaneously can be a challenge. We're not averse to delaying the meal or moving it forward. It doesn't happen that often, though, because we're not nearly as booked-up as we might be. Neither Sophie nor Sam ever did much in the way of school plays, after-school lessons, volunteer activities or sports. When Sam writes his memoirs, he'll likely lament all the teams he never joined. But he'll also wax nostalgic about the joy of cooking breakfast or omelettes for his sleepover friends, and preparing chocolate mousse from scratch for his French class.

Both of our children have learned that sharing well-prepared food with friends is one of life's great pleasures. And our prandial proclivity has also fed less obvious messages as well. We've unconsciously conveyed -- as Calta notes in her book -- the value of storytelling; turning the day's frustrations into compelling narrative sharpens verbal skills and can be therapeutic. We've taught them that how one behaves (whether you talk with your mouth full, say) and how one looks (whether you have food on your face) matters. That new experiences aren't something to be feared -- even if they're leafy and green. And, unlike parents who put children's preferences first, we push the reactionary rubric that accommodating the group is at least as important as immediately gratifying personal desires.

Will these lessons stick? It's too early to tell. But this summer, Sophie is living with her boyfriend in an apartment in Philadelphia -- her first experience keeping house for herself. On the phone, she goes into rapturous detail about the spices they've bought in bulk and the Indian dishes they've prepared for their friends. That's not exactly Norman Rockwell, or fascism. But it's a start.

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Ruth Horowitz


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