The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley reviews what sounds like a very nice book: Miriam Weinstein’s “The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier.” In it, Weinstein argues that sitting down with the whole family each night to eat together–what she calls “family supper”–is a dying custom that ought to be revived.
Writes Yardley, quoting Weinstein:
“For generations it has been a ‘basic human ritual,’ but now ‘everyday family supper is no longer a given.’ Pressured by two-career households and soccer-mom-carpooling obligations, to cite two of the many distractions of contemporary life, more and more American families dine not at a common table but separately and/or on the run.
“‘[E]ating ordinary, average everyday supper with your family is strongly linked to lower incidence of bad outcomes such as teenage drug and alcohol use, and to good qualities like emotional stability. It correlates with kindergarteners being better prepared to learn to read….Regular family supper helps keep asthmatic kids out of hospitals. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports your staying more connected to your extended family, your ethnic heritage, your community of faith. It will help children and families to be more resilient, reacting positively to those curves and arrows that life throws our way. It will certainly keep you better nourished. The things we are likely to discuss at the supper table anchor our children more firmly in the world. Of course eating together teaches manners both trivial and momentous, putting you in touch with the deeper springs of human relations.'”
All true and wise–but I’ve got a couple of cavils. First, what’s with the “family supper” monicker? When I was growing up in California, It was “family dinner,” because, as my mother informed us children, only “Okies” who put their feet up on the coffee table referred to the evening meal as “supper”–and they also called lunch “dinner.” “Dinner” (served at its proper hour) was for refined folks like us who used several forks, preceded each main course with a salad, and served a thimbleful of wine to the older children because diners of class always imbibed, although in moderation. “Supper,” however, may be a regionalism–or a ruralism–that feels comfortable to Weinstein. After all, those “Okies” my mother derided were no more than displaced farmers used to eating their biggest meal of the day at noon.
My more serious objection to Weinstein’s book is that she tends to elevate what was once a necessity–everyone has to eat after a long day–to a self-conscious ritual of togetherness. Here’s more from Yardley’s review:
“In many American households today, for example, there is only one parent, who often is working and has trouble putting a well-balanced meal on the table at a certain time every evening. Yet they are still households and still families, and a meal with one parent at the table is still a family meal. In many other American families today, to cite another example, both parents work and their schedules simply don’t dovetail in ways that permit, say, supper together every evening at 6:30. Well, Weinstein says, there are other ways and occasions the family can gather — she cites one family that always spends Saturday morning together — and she’s right. It’s being together that matters, not the where and when of it.
“But family supper combines ‘two basic needs, for nourishment and for connection,’ and there’s nothing else quite like it.”
Again, when I was a kid, we ate dinner/”supper” together every night except Saturday, when my parents got gussied up and went out on the town, but we had no idea we were participating in a ceremony of “being together.” And indeed, had we thought about it that way, we would have fled the table, because my two sisters and I under normal circumstances couldn’t abide in the same room with each other for more than five minutes without a serious fight–and we more or less felt the same way about our parents. For us, the family evening meal was simply there. Families ate at home, not at restaurants (except for special occasions), and by 6 p.m., we were all hungry. So six of us sat down to a kitchen table that was designed to seat four (talk about “being together”!) and was a foot away from the stove, from which my mother, a fabulous cook, ladeled the meal. My father ruled the table, and he enforced a long list of by-laws: no slurping, no “elbows,” no unkind remarks about schoolmates, no witticism that could be construed as the slightest bit off-color. The topic of conversation was always “current events.”
Later on, we, like Weinstein, would come to sentimentalize this nightly event as we came to sentimentalize everything else in that pre-Sixties Revolution culture: the leafy-green suburban neighborhoods that were safe, thanks to policing now regarded as repressive, the schools that actually taught you something instead of nurturing your creativity.
So I’m not unsympathetic to Weinstein’s efforts to reinvent artificially what we now realize were rituals of family belonging in our age where in many households there are not only no tyrants of etiquette like my father but no fathers at all, where cooking is fast becoming a lost art, and where few have the time to sit down for a meal with spouse, offspring, and/or siblings. I say to Weinstein: Good luck, and I hope it works.