Good evening, friends and neighbors.
It has been months since I have had dinner with my family.
The last time I sat down to dinner with my family was when Emily and I were back in New Jersey for our wedding. Even with just two of us, Emily and I only get to sit down to a homecooked meal together maybe twice a week.
It’s quite a change from when I grew up, one I tend to feel often. It’s no surprise then that when I saw this early this morning, trawling through social media, it struck a chord.
I was extremely fortunate as a kid- I had both parents, one of whom (my mom) didn’t need to work. She became a librarian when my sisters and I were in high school/college- not through necessity, but because she was bored and wanted something to do.
The whole time she was a stay-at-home mom, though, my mother insisted on a family dinner every night, and that that dinner should be homemade. Of course, all stereotypes have a seed of truth to them- some dinners were hits, others misses (my father will tell you stories of black bean burgers, and nuclear-hot buffalo wings where the red color was entirely from paprika.)
Hit or miss, though, the intent was the same. Dinner was when the family talked. It was where we shared our day and our thoughts. Books were forbidden at the dinner table (quite the imposition on three exceptionally bookish kids. A common game when out to dinner was “Guess the literary work from the first line that I’m reciting from memory.”)
Comic books, toys, and any other diversion where likewise banned. It was family time.
Since moving away, I have missed those dinners more and more- not just the food, but the conversation. The experience of eating and sharing together. Living on my own has gotten me used to… well, being on my own.
I do enjoy my alone time. It’s when I do some of my best work, and when I can think most clearly. At home or out on the town though, the most enjoyable of those dinners I remember involve friends. They involve laughing, sharing stories and jokes, and just enjoying each others presence in our lives.
I talk a lot on this blog on the virtues of food as communication, as well as the economic and experiential joys of home cooking. Of all the things cooking communicates, though- the very best is love.
There is something profoundly primal about the emotional impact of sharing with, cooking for, and feeding others.
Looking after your friends and loved ones at this most basic, biologically necessary level communicates- in a way deeper than words can conjure- that you love them, care for their well-being, and want them around.
“The fact is, I love to feed other people. I love their pleasure, their comfort, their delight in being cared for. Cooking gives me the means to make other people feel better, which in a very simple equation makes me feel better. I believe that food can be a profound means of communication, allowing me to express myself in a way that seems much deeper and more sincere than words. My Gruyere cheese puffs straight from the oven say ‘I’m glad you’re here. Sit down, relax. I’ll look after everything.’
– Ann Patchett, “Dinner For One, Please, James”
Four years ago this month, my grandmother passed on- and some of my most treasured memories happened around her dinner table. Holiday dinners- when family would come from afar and gather around her huge dining table with the carved wooden legs- are some of the happiest moments of my life.
The food and drink would flow, the family would laugh and share jokes and stories. To quote Vonnegut, in those moments “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
In retrospect, that was one reason I became a cook and a baker- I wanted to help EVERYONE find those moments of happiness. Whether I was cooking for them, or teaching people to do it themselves, I wanted everyone to have at least one moment around their dinner table like I did.
You have a busy life, though. You have so many things demanding your time and attention. Dinners tend to be afterthoughts, and lonely ones- or when you are not alone, it is so easy to be distracted.
There’s a club for people that deal with that- it’s called “everyone.” I attend the meetings every now and then.
When I decided that I was going to get in shape, one of the challenges was finding the time. I didn’t know when was best, when I’d have the most energy, when I’d feel the most motivated- “when I’d have the chance.”
One of the biggest lessons I learned from that was “You always have time for the things you make time for.” Thirty minutes I spent dithering on the computer could be spent running. Time in front of the tv could easily be active.
The same applies to your family dinner- “you have time for the things you make time for.”
Pick a time after which you will NOT be disturbed by work or other activity. If that’s too much, pick just one night a week. Keep it open for family dinner, and keep it sacred.
That sounds dramatic, but it really is what you need to do- make that time or that night special, to yourself and the ones you love.
It can be a homecooked family dinner right out a Norman Rockwell painting- or just swinging by a friends place with Chinese take-out.
It’s not hard, or even a really big ask- but it can mean the world.
You don’t need to cook well- or even at all. You just need to BE THERE.
Be there to witness- to listen, to laugh, and to tell.
Be there to love the people you love- they will know.
It’s not that hard at all- and it’s worth it.