Family Dinner. Why do those two words conjure up so many different emotions? It used to be simple. At 5pm in Iowa (6pm for us there were cocktails first) we sat down for dinner, period. There was no dialog about what to have, where to sit or more importantly what to eat. We ate what was put in front of us either hot as served or lukewarm to cold if we decided to resist the lima beans. I don’t remember pithy conversations, jokes, or stories. I do remember a lot of boredom, waiting to be dismissed to dash outside, in the summer or just away in the winter. Dismissal was at my father’s whim. Dinner attendance was expected. Only on sleepovers when you changed dinner tables was there variety. Dinner was the last family ritual to be performed before individual homework, baths, and bed. In those days there was a touch of black and white T.V., also controlled by Dad.
Fast forward. When The Princess was a tyke, I fed her first for many reasons. Firstly, she just wasn’t fun to eat with. She was happy eating the same thing all the time and I wasn’t happy making the same thing all the time for me to eat. Secondly, I didn’t even think about dinner until 5-6pm. During school I would bang out something for her but in the summer it was oft times when food wasn’t ready until 8-9pm. When she did become old enough to be tolerated at the table there were manners to be taught- elbows off, milk finished, napkin in the lap, silverware placement, and most importantly shoulders up! No slouching. We did make a stab at conversation but most of the stories had been told already. I did find it a great time for a family meeting, a time for us all to be updated on future plans and obligations. I didn’t make her wait until the last scrap was eaten by all and there were times when we did eat in front of the T.V. but mostly there was dinner music and candles not in a hoity toity way but a benchmark for civility and respect.
My job was to feed. My NSSP and The Princess’s job was to eat without complaint. There were a few years when I almost hated to put food in front of the other 2/3’s of the house. “Can’t you make anything plain?” she lamented. “Why does it always have to be fancy or gourmet?” she would push food around her plate as if it was a hated substance. I didn’t have an answer that she would understand but in defense I would have gone stark raving mad if I had to cook from Betty Crocker every day. I needed to be creative in my kitchen.
What goes around comes around. I find The Princess a success now. She can work her way around a menu at the fanciest of restaurants and is a joy to eat with next to NSSP. She hasn’t learned to cook (I was never a touchy feely stir the pudding mom- more of the go get your homework done and I’ll meet you at the dinner table kind of gal) but her palate is developed and she will try almost anything. She has a cook’s logic and on the few times she’s called me for recipes whipping down the aisles at Gristedes Market or the Fairway her questions are insightful.
She also is fearless. Last Thanksgiving she and her best friend made turkey pot pie with dough made from scratch. I do get nervous when she says she has nothing in the fridge (this prompts me to send pasta, sauce and peanut butter) I have to release. She will find her way.
These days with an empty nest, Family Dinner is for either one or two. Candles are still lit and jazz replaces the classical cooking music. It is an interlude between two parts of the day and a time to wind down. I wouldn’t give it up for anything!