DJ Taylor: Is a return to family meals such a good thing?

Like the Simpsons with their pork-chop suppers, my parents observed a painstaking regime
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The Independent Online

In one of those happy coincidences that beckon a writer towards his subject, the Taylors were half-way out of the door en route for my five year-old's birthday lunch (the Benjarong, Magdalen Street Norwich, warmly recommended) when my eye fell on a newspaper article proclaiming a decisive shift in the pattern of our national life. According to analysts from the Mintel Group, a long-term decline in one salient area of family existence has been reversed. After years of TV dinners and snacks wolfed on the run, researchers have identified a 5 per cent increase in the number of families who take the trouble to sit down and eat together.

In one of those happy coincidences that beckon a writer towards his subject, the Taylors were half-way out of the door en route for my five year-old's birthday lunch (the Benjarong, Magdalen Street Norwich, warmly recommended) when my eye fell on a newspaper article proclaiming a decisive shift in the pattern of our national life. According to analysts from the Mintel Group, a long-term decline in one salient area of family existence has been reversed. After years of TV dinners and snacks wolfed on the run, researchers have identified a 5 per cent increase in the number of families who take the trouble to sit down and eat together.

It hardly needs saying that, at a time when the teaching profession laments that some five year-olds can barely hold a knife and fork, this development has been welcomed by childcare professionals. Dr Pat Spungin, who fronts the Raisingkids.co.uk website, has remarked that family mealtimes give parents and children a vital opportunity to talk. Dr Spungin's own research, which suggested that a fifth of UK families could never find the time or the inclination to prepare a sit-down dinner, had prompted her to start a campaign for proper family meals. The neatly-laid table; the ellipse of raised, expectant faces; the serene hum of communal chatter: all this, it seems, is as much a prerequisite for the child's successful nurture as a room of one's own or Sats.

To sit in the Benjarong, on the other hand, congratulating myself on the comparative civility of my own children's table manners (one prawn regurgitation and some rushed loo visits notwithstanding) was to become aware of unignorable twitches on the ancestral thread. My parents came from the generation that regarded communal meals as an institution more or less on a par with the Royal Family and the Church of England: sacrosanct, inviolable, tampered with at your peril.

Rather like the Simpsons, with their zealous routines of meatloaf nights and pork-chop suppers, they observed a painstaking regime of roasts and cold-meat-with-salads, that clearly derived from prescriptions yet more remote in time. My father, in fact, once admitted that, having praised a particularly succulent meat pie that my grandmother wrought upon him on the first occasion he had lunch at his prospective in-laws, he was forced to eat the same dish every Saturday until the wedding.

Just as meticulously enforced were the rituals: everyone present, no skiving upstairs on grounds of homework, departure prohibited until the plates had been cleared away. Woe betide anyone whose friend rang up while the main course was giving way to the dessert or the ingrate who wanted to relocate to the TV. As a child, I think I took the same view of these arrangements as I do now: thoroughly approving in principle while less enthusiastic in practice. The reason for this, I imagine, combines instinct and sociology.

One of the great pleasures of leaving home and going to university, for children of my generation, was the collapse of the obligation to eat your meals with half-a-dozen other people in talkative attendance. Suddenly, aged 19, one could eat what one liked and, more important, where and with whom one wanted to eat it. For the whole of my first year at college, I seem to remember, I breakfasted alone in my room off six chocolate biscuits and a cup of coffee, simply because the choice was mine to make.

The other explanation, ominously enough, lies in that innate and unconquerable English Puritanism. Even 30 years ago - the tocsin is far more insistent now - one heard a huge amount, sometimes in school textbooks, about those "civilised" continentals, with their afternoon- long Sunday lunches, papa, maman et les enfants all chattering amicably away over their tureens of crayfish soup while the sun blazed over the distant vineyard and Napoleon the basset-hound loafed in the shade and so forth. Not only shocking Gallic self-indulgence, it seemed to me, but a waste of valuable time that could be better spent reading, or writing, or going for a long walk, and all bound up in a kind of pageantry that the functional business of eating doesn't seem to need.

I remember once being forced to attend a six-course banquet at an Italian literary festival where the plates were set down and whisked away so punctiliously that the guests barely had time to eat any of the food. Ritual, you see, in which the processes and the paraphernalia of consumption were somehow more important than what did (or in this case didn't) get eaten.

To go back to Family Taylor, comfortably ensconced at the Benjarong, and indeed the praiseworthy interventions of Dr Spungin, I'm all for family meals, and any child of mine who wanders, unlicensed, away from the Sunday table can be sure of a peremptory summons back. On the other hand, six chocolate digestives and a lamb samosa, gnawed in guilty solitude in one's bedroom while reading a novel, must rate as one of the grandest pleasures on earth.

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