By John Prince
“We’re the only family we know that, like, sits down and has dinner together almost every day,” my children told me continually over the years.
“So, what do other people for meals?” I would ask.
“Everyone makes something for themselves when they get hungry,” was the usual reply. “They eat at the kitchen counter, or at their computer, or take it with them.”
I grew up in dairy farming country where the hours were long, the work was hard and people ate prodigious quantities of hearty food. There was a division of labor. Women ran the house and made the meals. No woman was going to prepare a separate meal for each person in the family. And no one was going to make their own meal – there was way too much work to be done. So, the natural consequence was that there were at least three sit-down family meals a day.
They were usually lively affairs. Talk of the day, the news, politics, gossip, school, which cow was ready to freshen, how the crops were doing, arguments, the price of milk, announcements (good and bad) and, always, the weather. There were (as far as I knew) no social scientists analyzing the benefits and dynamics of family interaction and communication. Everyone did it because it was the most convenient and efficient way to get food into our hungry stomachs.
The sit-down meal was not just a North American tradition. In the early 1960’s I spent time with a family in Paris, France. Dinner, which began around 7:00 pm and lasted until 9:30 or later, was a formal event and attendance was mandatory for everyone—including me. Papa led animated discussions on literature, current events, family affairs, music and history, and everyone was expected to contribute as we went through the courses. The family was originally from Algeria and spoke only Arabic and French. My French improved immensely.
One evening, on the way home on the Metro, one of the children looked around at us ominously and said “Nous sommes en retard!” “We’re late!” It went without saying that Papa would be annoyed and dinner would have to be held until we arrived.
Have you watched “Blue Bloods” on TV? Then you know that one of the effective plot techniques has the multi-generational Reagan family around the dinner table hashing out their latest law enforcement and interpersonal problems.
Of course, confounding the concept of the family meal are all the distractions—a myriad of electronic devices and phones, TV, traveling parents, scheduling conflicts and basketball practice.
Recently I read an article in a national newspaper reporting that Americans don’t like to cook meals. The writers cited the rise in the popularity of the meal-kit market (Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and so on) where all the ingredients arrive in a box and would-be chefs just have to chop, combine and cook. But now the meal-kit suppliers are finding that consumers want kits that require even less preparation time. “So much chopping!” they say.
I’d like to believe that such trends are urban aberrations. I really want to believe that across the vast swath of America there are millions of families who sit down together most evenings around a table of food and talk, argue, tell each other their stories, announce life changing events, cry, apologize and make up. It’s almost like having Thanksgiving dinner every day. With pasta and hamburger helper instead of roast turkey and mashed potatoes.