The importance of family dining
At the dining-table children learn about the connections between food, feelings and family life
Thursday 02 September 1999
What a pity. And how foolish. It is important to remember that this demise applies to a minority of world citizens; for all the rest of us, the family meal still matters hugely, perhaps even more than before because it helps to steady our lives in these chaotic times.
But, for the mass of English and American Anglo-Saxons, eating is no more than, as the food writer, MFK Fisher put it, a "glum urge" to fill up on grub. Their eyes on the telly, they fill their bellies with whatever and call it progress. One day, of course, with so much media power in the hands of those who have declared the family meal dead, we too will succumb to the trend.
Even as I write this I can hear the quarrels that go on these days in British Asian households: "Do you think you are English? Want to eat in front of the television? Hurting your poor mother, breaking her heart. She cooks all this food and you want hamburgers?" I imagine such arguments in Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish and many other non-Wasp British households too, all of whom believe that it is enormously important to cling to their communal eating traditions, which are as old as humanity and common to the whole species.
This is why it matters, and why, in common with most of my Asian and Jewish friends, I try to make sure that we eat together every evening and at weekends. I cook for the family most days, and love doing so. My feminism has not interfered with that desire to create and offer food as an act of love for the people who matter so much to me.
I think Susie Orbach is wrong when she says that this act of love is rejected by children, who "just want to get the fuel in and go", and that bringing together the family via a meal "creates fantastic tension".
Food alone, without words, can be used to bind and reflect needs. Just think of that wonderful Ang Lee film, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, in which a lonely old father, who is a chef, insists that his carelessly independent daughters come home each Sunday for a special meal that he spends hours making. Or Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, or the Italian films of the Seventies, or Woody Allen films, in which the dining-table becomes the field on which all sorts of emotions (including not only pleasure, but also guilt and anger) are played out, and children learn about the connections between food, feelings and family life.
Some people argue that, in this country, eating together has always been more of a myth than a reality. The psychotherapist Dorothy Rowe claims that ordinary middle-class families really started eating together only after the war. Before then they were packed off either to boarding school or to the nursery. This must explain why so many restaurants in this country are still hostile to children.
Rowe also believes that the ritual can be more an enactment of power and oppression than of togetherness. I accept this. There is something unspeakably painful about the weak being made to suffer at the family table. I have seen Asian women going through the indignity of having the food they have cooked thrown at them. But even these women would not easily give up on their traditional eating habits, especially if the alternative is a Sainsbury's chicken tikka masala in tinfoil, eaten alone.
When my son first went off to university in Edinburgh, we both intensely missed our meals in the evening, and there were many dishes that I refused to cook because they reminded me so much of him. I even once sent him a food parcel, which took so long to arrive that it was stale by the time it got there.
No, we are not, nor were we ever, a perfect family. There were major rows at the table. Food, glasses and sometimes chairs were hurled around with passion. Unspeakable things were said during those nightmarish teenage years. There was a terrifying divorce to cope with, and all the struggles of a reconstituted family. A very English Englishman (whose own mother had long given up on family meals) had to learn to survive and love these volatile occasions. But we knew each other, because we ate and talked every night. We do the same with our little one.
Last December my son invited me to his home for my birthday and cooked me a sensational meal, much of it consisting of recipes my mother had taught me and which I had passed on to him. It was, he said, a continuation of a convention he now believes in as strongly as I do. The Oxo family is dead, but long live the Pathak family.
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