Sundays have become family meal times, like the old days when we had a big ham or a roast on Sundays, late in the afternoon. A couple of weeks ago, when I made B &B Roast Chicken, we ate early, sat at the dining room table, lit the candles, and generally behaved as a civilized family. Not that we aren’t a civilized family, but with five-year olds and dinner, you just never know.
Sundays are also the day when my work-related anxiety begins to creep up the scale. This Sunday was no exception — I have grades due in a week, and for me that means writing detailed narratives about each child I teach. I should have been writing those narratives, but instead, I spent a good number of hours in the kitchen, making bread and dinner.
The choices I made and the balance I try to achieve reveal my underlying supposition that family meals are central. The time with family at the dinner table centers us, connects us, and gives us time together that is sacred. In the hectic pace of school and work, this ritual binds us and forces us to put aside our other agendas, if only for these moments. I’ve read the research about the decline of family meal time, and I am not naive enough to think that keeping this time sacred will cure all family ills, but it gives us a starting point, a place to begin.
Yesterday, I began with a great recipe, once again from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. The recipe for coconut-lemongrass-braised-pork allowed that substituting with chicken might work just as well, so I gave it a try. The recipe was simple enough that I could complete the meal while taking some time to make bread, too.
We savored this dish, and the funny thing is that both Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl thanked me for making such a good meal. That hasn’t happened before. The time that we took to sit, to enjoy being together, and to talk about the day allowed us appreciate the meal and what we do for each other.
The increased attention to family meals is perhaps a reaction to the face pace of our lives, and The Family Dinner by Laurie David is certainly a timely publication. David wrote that she experienced a light bulb moment when her teenage daughters lingered chatting at the family dinner table. David gave credit to the ritualized family meal times for sustaining her mother-daughter relationship. The meal times that spanned 10 years of her daughters’ lives kept lines of communication open between herself and her daughters, especially during the difficult period of her divorce.
In 2006, Time Magazine published “The Magic of the Family Meal,” in which author Nancy Gibbs explained the well-researched benefits of family meals. Gibbs notes, “Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.” The amazing claims about the outcomes of family meals don’t suggest that all the meals are harmonious. In fact, it also seems that family meals can sometimes be challenging, uncomfortable, or even drudgery. The point is that you keep doing it, you practice, you work it. It’s like anything else we work at — like running a marathon, even. We have to put in the miles of talk, sharing, compromising, and listening at the table to experience the euphoria of the finish line.
I’m also heartened that my somewhat manic attention to cooking enjoyable meals, to spending time creating something that we’ll all enjoy consuming, isn’t simply filling time. Robin Fox, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, interviewed for the article focused on the importance of food as both sustenance and ritual. “Making food is a sacred event,” he says. “It’s so absolutely central–far more central than sex. You can keep a population going by having sex once a year, but you have to eat three times a day.”
Cooking meals for family and friends has become an even more important ritual — one that for the moment takes the place of my other ritual — running. I’d love to be able to marry the two, and perhaps that event will be on the horizon. Until then, my meals will sustain me, and my family, while we work our way through the day-to-day kinship around the table that help us make ourselves a family.