The Family Dinner Matters
By Carole Townsend
It’s been said for years, by psychologists, pastors, and even by just us laypeople: family dinnertime matters. In a whirlwind world that gets more blustery by the year, what with sports and academic activities, work and other commitments, the family dinner table is, in a sense, the eye of the storm. It’s that calm, peaceful time when a family can sit down, unplug, share and forge stronger bonds. Such time is critical to healthy families.
Our pastor has been talking about family dinnertime recently, and his words got me thinking. Our own family has been guilty of minimizing that golden opportunity for the past few years. I suppose my husband and I thought that, with all but one of our children out of the house, family dinnertime should be reserved for those occasions when all of our children were back home again – say, for holidays or summertime barbecues. Yes, we had become that family that ate wherever we felt like eating the evening meal, and that was usually in front of the television. It never felt right to me, though, as family dinnertime was always a big deal in my home when I was a child.
My mother, who lived through the Great Depression and who came from a family with nine siblings, had some very definite thoughts about family meals as well as the person who prepared them. There were hard and fast rules pertaining to both in my childhood home, and woe be to the one who didn’t respect them. For example, when my mom announced every evening that dinner was ready, we were to come to the table, hands washed and looking presentable, after that one announcement. If we didn’t, our plate and utensils were unceremoniously removed from the table, and we would sit that meal out.
Now that may sound harsh to some of you, but her reasoning was that, if she cared enough to prepare a meal for the family, each of us should have enough respect to show up to the table when summoned. She had another rule: no matter what she prepared, we were to at least try it if we had never tasted it, and at the end of every meal, we were expected to say “thank you” or some other such expression of gratitude for the meal. Remember, people who had weathered the Great Depression were marked forever by it, and food was not to be taken for granted. Of course, we were all expected to pitch in to help clean the kitchen when the meal was over, as well.
I’ll never forget the time my mother prepared asparagus with cheese sauce one evening. Now in my family, such a dish indicated that the Queen of England or some other such royalty was joining us for dinner. I’ve mentioned before that, in our family, meat of any kind was fried, and vegetables consisted of green beans and corn. Period. Pinto beans and potatoes were staples, of course, but as far as anything that might be considered healthy, green beans and corn just about covered it. Of course, they were cooked beyond recognition, but they still fell into the category of “vegetable” in a very loose, Southern sense of the word.
When we children saw that steaming dish of cheese-smothered asparagus, well, we didn’t know what to think. We expected something great, something remarkable, to take place at dinner that evening. Surely asparagus was the stuff of which history is made.
Come to think of it I suppose you could say that history was made that evening.
You see, we kids all knew the rule about trying something before saying we didn’t like it. That asparagus sat there on the table, loomed there really, and it mocked us. Each of us knew that we were going to have to taste it. I don’t think we had ever seen a green vegetable before that evening; I mean, we knew green beans were green at some point, but they were always a dark shade of brownish-green by they time they reached our dinner table. This asparagus was so green it looked artificial. The cheese was a garish and unnatural shade of orange but hey, it was cheese. It was our only hope.
To make a long story short, my siblings and I knew the drill; there was no getting around it. We dutifully took a couple of spears of asparagus, trying with each turn to sop up as much of the cheese sauce as possible. My sister and I cut the impossibly green spears into teeny, tiny bites, dragged them through the cheese sauce, put them in our mouths and swallowed. We didn’t chew; chewing only emphasized the taste and texture of an unknown and likely awful-tasting mystery vegetable.
My brother, on the other hand, was a chewer. I never understood that until I had one of my own years later – my daughter. Chewers will chew an unknown food forever, somehow thinking, I suppose, that the food will eventually disappear if they chew long enough. What happens, in fact, is that the bite of food seems to actually get bigger the more it’s chewed. As my sister and I stared at my brother, watching him chew his asparagus with cheese sauce, that seemed to be exactly what was happening. It was growing. I’ll never forget that sense of dread as I saw my brother’s cheeks get bigger and bigger. Then his eyes started watering, a sure sign that something had to give, and soon.
That day, that evening meal, still lives in infamy among us all in my family, or at least those of us who were there to witness it. I can picture it like it was yesterday. When my brother’s cheeks could not get any bigger, when tears actually began running down his very-red face, it happened. In what I can only explain as a half-hiccup, half- (well, something else), my brother sprayed a fine, well-chewed mist of asparagus and cheese sauce all over my mother, who happened to be sitting directly across from him at the table. The whole thing happened in painfully slow motion, seeming to take a good half hour rather than the few seconds it actually took. I remember (again, slow motion) blinking, looking from my brother to my mom, and the strangest image still sticks in my memory today. My mom, whose expression could only be described as disbelieving shock, had tiny green and orange specks on the tips of her eyelashes. Of course, they were everywhere else too, but that’s what I remember – her eyelashes decorated with a misty spray of asparagus and cheese sauce.
It seems to me that, after what came to be known as the Great Asparagus Event, my mom became a bit more relaxed with her “you must try it before saying you don’t like it” rule.
I never forgot her mealtime rules though, and I have carried them over to my own family. I do believe that the family dinner table is the place where a lot of growing up takes place, both for individual family members and for the family as a whole. It’s where we catch up with each other, where we find out what’s important in our lives on any given day.
I can also say that my family is now back at the dinner table every evening, no matter whether it’s just my husband and me, or all six of us. During the meal, there are no electronics allowed – no phones, no iPads, not even any television. I’m glad that we are back to honoring family mealtime, because I’ve missed it.
My brother, of course, is all grown up now, a very successful businessman with a family of his own. I wonder if he ever thinks about the Great Asparagus Event these days. I think I’ll do my sisterly duty and give him a call, just to remind him.
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. She writes about family, from both a humorous and poignant perspective. Her newest book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. She is currently writing her fourth book. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When not writing, she travels throughout the region, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well-being of the family, particularly women and children. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.