I'll never forget that first meal with my French in-laws. It wasn't just the embarrassment of my stumbling, awkward schoolgirl French or that my new husband had to translate everything anyone said for me. No, it was simply the meal. Oh, nothing fancy for these simple working folk, but a family gathered around the table together over a hot meal, work put aside, worries forgotten; just an everyday lunch shared, the air filled with succulent odors wafting from a home-cooked, from-scratch pot au feu or blanquette simmering on the stove, laughter and conversation.
I think back to my childhood mealtimes, mealtimes in that Space Age 1960's and 70's, far from the glamour and culinary delights of a more cosmopolitan world, when days were spent running barefoot over scorching cement in the burning Florida sun. Snacks were grabbed willy-nilly, lunches thrown together when we felt the urge and eaten sitting nestled in the branches of the old tree in the front yard, peanut butter on white in one hand, book in the other. Dinnertime was fast and furious, eaten in silence with the drone of the television in the background, the quicker to scurry back to our games.
And how we rejoiced in the newfangled food inventions of the Sixties! My mom always made it clear that she didn't enjoy cooking. She was a New Woman, that still unusual amalgamation of homemaker and workingwoman: days filled with job, volunteering and clubs, homemaking skills honed down to the bare minimum. Oh, she did whip up that occasional home-cooked meal, dry-as-shoe-leather liver, over-cooked fish and onions, cabbage soup that could put hair on your chest, sometimes luscious Veal Scaloppini or tasty Surprise Burgers, but rarely did we burst in the back door after a long day at school to be greeted by the delightful odors of something wonderful simmering on the stove top or platefuls of home-baked cookies and pies. We were, after all, the Hamburger Helper, Spaghetti O's, Hungry Man generation. This was the Space Age, gadget meal era of the pre-packaged, boxed, canned and frozen, the rip it open, shake it up, throw-it-all-together casserole time and we loved it. As did mom! And mealtimes were as quick as all that convenient cooking.
Whatever was brought to the table, good or bad, it was served up like clockwork: 6:00 on the nose every evening, exactly half an hour after dad got home. Mom, like all moms everywhere, would lean out the back door and yell for us kids to come inside. Sue and Andrew on one side of the table facing Michael and I on the other, mom and dad flanking us at either end. Walter Cronkite blaring in the other room so dad could listen all the way through to "And that's the way it is..." We were all happy eaters, giggling and laughing throughout the meal, trying hard, as hard as kids can, to stay quiet, not a peep, so dad could listen to the news. Games played around the meal: who could eat the most broccoli or spinach and titles would be bestowed: Popeye for the evening or Biggest Tree-Eating Giant. There would be rejoicing all around whenever we saw dad pull out the pancake griddle or fire up the charcoal grill out in front of the house on that rare weekend when he chose to cook. Yet as we grew older, my mother cooked less and less often as we were more and more able to fix our own meals. She just stood up one day and announced "I'm done! I'm not cooking anymore. You are all old enough to fend for yourselves!" And that was that. Mealtimes hurried for whomever was home, the television often our favorite dinner partner.
So this meal at my French in-laws was a revelation. Did people really eat this way every day, cooking and gathering and chatting and enjoying the time and each other's company? I looked around me during those first few years in France and Italy when our sons were small and saw it all everywhere: families gathered every day around a hot meal. It was simply natural, family tradition, everyone who was living at home sat down and shared the time of a meal together with no distractions. And weekends often found the family at the grandparents, several generations together, cooking, eating, playing music, games or a walk together after lunch, the kids, even the teens, enjoying the company of the adults as much as the older members of the family were delighting in watching the children grow up. And everyone seemed so happy, harmonious, connected.
Once we had children and as we have watched them grow, one thing we have striven for and that has indeed remained a constant in our home: mealtime. Weekday mornings we stumble into the kitchen and pour mugs of coffee and glasses of milk and eat together in the calm, quiet of the early hours, sharing a smile, a few words of encouragement, a cozy family moment in a warm kitchen. Lunchtimes on weekends and dinnertimes are spent together eating stew or tagine, soup or blanquette, homemade pizza or risotto, something wholesome, made with love. Work and school put aside, adolescent arguments, sibling rivalry and annoying fads momentarily forgotten, we laugh and joke, debate politics, gossip or the latest films, have hot and heavy discussions about kings and warriors, ancient civilizations, religion and language. It is our time to be a family no matter what happens, how we feel the rest of the day, the other days of the week. No television, no radio, no cell phones or computers, just the four of us, readjusting and tightening our family bonds.
I often go back to the States to spend time with my family. And mealtimes haven't changed: the kids grab a bite as they like, between activities, rarely sharing their time with the adults. Dinner is often eaten in front of the television, gobbled down quickly to the sound of the evening news or some cop show. Quiet evenings and home-cooked meals are reserved for special occasions and are truly savored and enjoyed, yet often the exception rather than the rule. It all makes me miss the quiet refuge of our family mealtimes back in France and I can't wait to get home.
We are fueled by our childhoods, influenced in ways we may or may not like to admit, products of traditions built and sustained. Dinnertime is a ritual we repeat across generations, its importance in our daily lives essential to our cultural survival. It can divide a family, keep them apart, accentuate their individual lives or it can hold the family together, gathering them around the table after a day running helter-skelter between school or work, lunches grabbed on the run or lunches swallowed over business deals.
In our busy, harried lives, mealtime should be a calm haven, a time to get to know each other over and over again, to laugh and to bond.