"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Endangered Species–The Home-Cooked Family Dinner

“I don’t want to drink my milk”, my sister said. “It makes me puke”.

My father stared at her and said there would be no dessert or TV if she didn’t finish; and the two of them began one of their famous standoffs which my sister usually won because she knew that my father wanted to watch Jack Benny.

The thing of it was, milk with salad – the two two essential and irreplaceable parts of every family meal – was indeed disgusting.  As I later learned in a grade school science experiment, if you add a few drops of acid to milk, it will curdle. My sister was right – mix a vinegary salad with a glass of milk, and the whole mess turns rotten, rancid, and gross.

The meals with Uncle Al were a lot more fun.  Al was a steamfitter at the brass factory in Ansonia and came up with his family every other Sunday.  My mother hated Uncle Al.  He and his wife Carmela had the manners of a barnyard menagerie, his only interests were his tomato plants and his pasta fazool.  Al was a jerk, but he was also my father’s brother, and Lord knows, there is no predicting the way the genes get spliced and reorganized during the course of genetic history.  His prognathous jaw, said my mother, was not typical of the Palumbos. Uncle Al had a lantern jaw usually only found on Irishmen from Cork let alone on my father or his brothers.  My sister said that Uncle Al’s jaw stuck so far out that when food dropped out of his mouth it bounced of his chin and then landed on the table.

My mother went out of her way to be polite and attentive to Al; but she did it with such glacial courtesy and icy glares that everyone but Al realized that her hauteur was aimed at him.  At the end of the meal his place was littered with bits of meat, string beans, and leaves of lettuce.  Bits of lamb were stuck to his jaw, and his wine glass – fine clear Baccarat crystal - was smeared and putrid after his many greasy, swirling swallows.

“It’s like watching a circus”, said my sister.

My mother had bouts of depression – dark, gloomy, black dog funks that lasted for days – and during those periods she did the minimum in the kitchen.  She boiled meat, lima beans, unpeeled potatoes, and canned corn in one big pot, threw the silverware and dishes on the table and said. “Eat. I’m not hungry”.  After her delicious spaghetti with clams, baked grouper with fennel, roast lamb with rosemary and cumin, and grilled eggplant with garlic and sesame oil (she was way ahead of her time), this pot of peasant boil was disgusting.  We all ate in silence as my mother sat there like a frustrated Victorian spinster and watched us.

When things went right – when my mother was in a good mood; when my sister drank her milk way before the salad; when my father was carefree and not obsessed by Government; and when there was no uncle Al – family dinners were fun. My father liked to talk about his patients.  He never gave away names or identifying characteristics – his patients were all immigrant Poles from Broad Street so there was no way that we would ever know who they were anyway – but went into gory detail about suppurating wounds, eyes so crossed that they almost disappeared in their sockets, nervous tics that made Herman X look like a sniffing bear, wasting cancers, club feet, and dementia.  We loved it.  We quizzed him on medical oddities, urged him to go on when it came to deformities and nutty behavior.

When my wife first came to dinner to meet my parents and sister, she blanched and started to topple over into the linguini when my father started in on boils.  “Now this was the nastiest one I had seen in a long time”, he said and related how his nurse sneezed on the scalpel just as he was about to make the incision, so he had to resort to Plan B and use an older knife that he reserved for work on bunions and cuticles.  Before he finished his story, my wife’s eyes were wide, she was licking her dry lips, and started to hyperventilate.  “Harry”, admonished my mother, “not at the dinner table”, although his gross stories were staple fare every evening.

I continued the tradition of family dinners, and even though they were sandwiched between outdoor play and homework, they were relatively leisurely affairs.  Following in the footsteps of my father, I told stories about my work; and believe me, there were plenty of weird things to tell about when I started in on the hellholes I had visited in Africa, travels with sadhus, itinerants, and Indian hijris; getting lost in the Algerian Sahara; and being feted by the cross-dressing men in rural Niger.

My wife has always been a great storyteller, and embellished tales of inter-office rivalries, bloody fingernails on the climb to the top, backstabbing, petty jealousy, and hateful tricks. “No one ever found out who put molasses into Harold Barnes’ new Porsche Carrera”, she said, “but everyone suspected Betsy Paolillo who had been passed over for promotion and hated men.  Rumor had it that her father had not accidently fallen down the Empire staircase in MacLean, but she had tripped and pushed him”.

Of course neither one of us could keep this up every night, but the world being what it is, there was never a dull moment.  My kids got into the act with their own stories of school.  There was Mrs. Roberts who kept order in the second grade by locking bad kids in the broom closet.  Miss Hayes who was way overweight and wore pancake makeup to hide her zits; and Mr. Healy who danced on the playground when he thought no one was looking.

Most meals were far more routine and much quicker.  Each of us had our share of bad days and brought our pissiness to the table.  My son stabbed his meat like a Haitian sticking pins into a voodoo doll – the meat was me, and if he could wish me out of existence, he would have.  My daughter deliberately drooled and ate with her mouth full of half-chewed food to spite my wife who was a stickler for table manners; and I had inherited enough of my mother’s gloomy genes that there was many a meal overcast with my dark pall.

Families are crucibles of maturity, Edward Albee once said; and although he hated bourgeois pretentions and the inability to communicate he knew – like O’Neill, Hellman, and of course Shakespeare – that the forced intimacy and roles of family were indispensable for growing up.  Unless one deals with capricious moods, pissy behavior, exaggerated stories, frustrations, expectations, and routine, adulthood will never come.

I realize that the family meal is on its way out.  The demands on everyone – adults and children – are such that even one dinner hour is too much.  There are office emails to answer, calls to Indonesia to make, evening dance classes to get to, additional AP assignments to be completed, social media to be surfed.

And this is all for the well-to-do.  These are the pressures of the affluent professionals of Washington and Los Angeles.  The working poor of Mississippi have other reasons to avoid the family meal – two jobs.  Day shifts and night shifts. Working teenagers. Too many children. Not enough time.

I know a family in Caledonia whose mother and father mean well; but as soon as Herm comes home at 3 pm from the early shift at the plant, he needs to eat and sleep before heading to the lumber yard for a few more hours of piece work.  He barely has time to greet his wife who is out the door for her night shift.  The kids spend most nights with Herm’s parents a few doors down. 

Herm and Estelle have it good by comparison with many families who have no jobs, exist on welfare and food stamps, whose fathers are absent and whose children are on the street. Dinners are pick-up wraps, half-smokes, and ice cream.  Life for both working and unemployed poor is lived on the margins.  A family dinner spiced with anecdotes and tall tales, teaching moments, and fun is as far from the experience of a family from Eupora as a formal dinner in the Hall of Mirrors of the Chateau de Versailles.

Recent research cited by Anna North in the New York Times (9.9.14) confirms this trend.  Families from all socio-economic levels are finding family dinners too stressful to continue:

[Researchers] spent time with 12 families, and interviewed 150 other moms from different socioeconomic strata, and found that between time pressures, money worries and picky family members, parents often struggled to squeeze meaningful togetherness out of dinnertime.

[The researchers note that] “the message that good parents — and in particular, good mothers — cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” Of one mother’s efforts to get dinner on the table, they write:

“Leanne’s 1-year-old daughter gets fussy when her mom cooks, and looks for attention. Her husband doesn’t offer much help; his contribution involves pouring barbecue sauce on the ribs, which Leanne calls ‘working his magic.’ Leanne wipes her brow and mutters to herself about the $80 she spent on ingredients. By the time she’s finished cooking, she says, ‘I don’t want to eat!’”

Upper middle-class parents are caught in an additional bind – the pressure to prepare fresh, organic food in interesting and innovative ways.  While this concern would be laughed at by Herm and Estelle whose freezer is stocked with Chef Boyardee, TV Dinners, EZ Gourmet Spicy Chicken, and two gross of cheapo hotdogs, the young families in Northwest DC are hurting.  Mom is on a fast track for VP at her accounting firm; and not only has to be home early enough to cook dinner, but has to make a stop at a crowded Whole Foods to pick up the Tuscan kale and arugula.

To be fair, the family dinner was possible in the 40s and 50s only because urban women did not work and had time to prepare elaborate meals; and because in farm families of the same generation women were expected to prepare elaborate family meals as an important economic contribution. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, barely 35 percent of women worked in 1950 while 75 percent do so today. Given the economic and social pressures of today, something had to give, and the family meal was a good place to start.

If the data generated by the survey cited in the North NYT article hold up, then things have changed radically from the early 90s.  There was homework, after-school soccer practice, and all-important social demands then too; but even though many professional couples had full-time jobs, they always had a family meal.  A close friend of mine opted for an early schedule at the World Bank, 7:30 to 4, so he was home in plenty of time to prepare and cook a meal.  He and his family ate at a reasonable hour, never rushed, and no one felt the meal hour an intrusion or unwanted waste of time.

I am told by young parents that the early 90s were the Dark Ages, well before I-Phones, the Internet, or social media – all of which have indeed intruded upon personal face time let alone on structured family dinners.  The family must now share time with colleagues, friends, lovers, and electronic sales agents who are always intruding.  

Since there is no turning back, and our age will soon seem hopelessly romantic and outdated in an age of virtual reality, computer-mind interface, and electronic individualism, what’s a mother to do?  I don’t know.  Any suggestion I might offer will certainly seem as démodé as dial telephones.  What I do know, however, is that in this supercharged electronic, increasingly virtual and socially changed environment (divorce, his-and-her families, multiple partnerships, cultural diversity), Albee’s crucible has been replaced by fluid relationships which make fewer and fewer demands.

It is popular now to hammer elite institutions for their dereliction of duty.  They teach economics and finance, but neglect moral and ethical instruction.  Perhaps these harsh critics have a point.  If families can no longer provide the environment in which the Roman principles of honesty, honor, respect, courage, and compassion are taught; then maybe other institutions have to pick up the slack.

I, however, am very glad that I ate dinner with Uncle Al, my stubborn sister, and my gory story-telling father and learned the right way – in the crucible.

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