I'm so enthralled by Laurie David's new book, The Family Dinner, that I want to shower it with superlatives. This is the only cookbook I ever got so engrossed in that I even schlepped it around on the subway (and nearly missed my stop, on several occasions.)
But, as my favorite sign at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity proclaimed, "Hyperbole Is The Worst Thing Ever." So, I'll try to curb my enthusiasm.
David's own pedigree is steeped in late night comedy; she got her start in showbiz as a talent booker for David Letterman, and is the former wife of comedic genius Larry David.
But she's better known as the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the game-changing documentary she persuaded Al Gore to make after seeing his Keynote slide show on the perils of climate change.
So, why would an ardent environmentalist choose a cookbook for her next project?
First of all, don't be fooled by The Family Dinner's sunny yellow cover, or its subtitle, Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. Though it's filled with tantalizing recipes from co-author Kirsten Uhrenholdt, this is much more than a cookbook. And it's not just for parents and kids.
It's also a thoughtful primer on how to keep everyone in your social circle -- friends, family, young and old -- well-fed and well-read. David offers playful strategies for introducing word games, poetry, current events, and other great conversation starters at the dinner table that promise to engage even the most taciturn teen (or sulky ex-spouse).
Many of these games would enliven a grown-up dinner party, too, which is why (along with all the quick, easy, tasty recipes) The Family Dinner merits a spot on your cookbook shelf, kids or no kids.
If you do have kids, though, don't you want them to be articulate, literate, and well-informed? Once upon a time, that would have been the proverbial no-brainer. But in this "Dumb As We Wanna Be" era, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has dubbed it, our kids are falling behind academically as fast as they're piling on the pounds.
I don't think it's a coincidence that Waiting For Superman, the latest project from Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, also focuses on America's educational crisis.
David and Guggenhiem are both working to combat the disturbing trend in our culture towards open contempt for science and apathy about academic mediocrity. Unless our kids learn to reason, to think critically and assess the blitz of information that bombards them daily, we'll never get a handle on our greenhouse gas emissions. And we'll continue our descent down the global ladder into that Third World America that Arianna Huffington sees looming in our future.
I first learned a few years back about the profound, far-reaching benefits of sitting down to regular meals with your kids from reading Miriam Weinstein's The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier.
But a frightening number of sheeple seem to be taking their cues, instead, from a playbook that could be titled The Alarming Power of Tea Parties: How Bleating Together Makes Us Dumber, Weaker, Sicker, and More Miserable.
Unless you get your news from Fox, whose apparent mission is to whip its viewers into a fact-free frenzy while sowing doubt about the science of climate change, you probably know that our kids are falling behind in math and science; our youth are increasingly unfit, physically or mentally, to serve in the military; we're battling depression, diabetes and obesity in record numbers; and a growing number of us are more confused than ever about whether climate destabilization is really a problem, even as stories of extreme severe weather dominate the news.
As David learned more about the immense potential of family dinners to counter a wide range of social ills, she became compelled to inspire parents and kids to get unplugged from all their digital distractions and reconnect to each other on a regular basis.
But you know who else doesn't sit down together and share a meal anymore? Our politicians. Is it a coincidence that our nation's capital has witnessed "a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing," as the New York Times reported last year?
The Senate's private dining room, "a place where members of both parties used to break bread," is now empty. Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, told the Times, "It has gotten so bad now that Republicans don't want to be seen publicly in the presence of Democrats or have a Democrat profess friendship for them or vice versa."
How can our two parties possibly work together, if they can't even dine together? Who needs civil discourse -- or table manners -- if you never even come to the table?
When David appeared on CNN's Parker Spitzer to promote her book recently, she noted, "Everything in our culture today is sort of putting us into separate corners."
The Family Dinner invites you to come out of your corner, pull up a chair, savor a real meal and exchange ideas and insights with your family, friends and neighbors. It encourages the preservation of family traditions, the discussion of current events, the expression of gratitude that enhances our well-being.
David enlists an eclectic mix of scholars, chefs, friends (some famous, some not) and others to write the sidebars and thoughtful tidbits that are scattered throughout the book. And, as you might expect, there are lots of tips on how to curb your carbon foodprint. I was pleased to see that she devotes an entire chapter to the Meatless Monday campaign, unequivocally condemns bottled water, and even glorifies the tiffin (a humble, reusable stainless steel lunch box much loved in India).
But what I love about The Family Dinner, more than anything, is that it celebrates lingering at the dinner table to engage in lingual hijinks. Reading this book reminded me how fortunate I am that my parents instilled in me a love of books and words, even as I rejected their politics (Republican) and religion (Christian Science). I did, however, become addicted to the Christian Science Monitor, which surely fostered my lifelong addiction to newspapers (thanks, Dad, for never letting my subscription lapse.)
I'm glad that Laurie David shares that love, and even gladder that she's using her influence to encourage others to engage in lively debates about current events, recite poems, and indulge in whimsy and word play.
David's book reminded me of the gentle, good-natured humor expressed in the signs we saw at Jon Stewart's Rally To Restore Sanity. I've already shared my favorite, but, to wrap this up, I'm offering a few more of these bon mots as a palate cleanser to purge you of the acrid aftertaste of the belligerent, bigoted slogans displayed at other recent rallies:
Think! It's Good For You, Good For The Country
I Came Here Illegally (I went 5 mph over the limit on I-95)
I Understand The Difference Between Communism, Fascism and Socialism And I Don't Use The Terms Interchangeably
Name-Calling Is Easy, But I Prefer Facts, Nuance, and Intellectual Debate
Drill, Baby, Drill...While Following Reasonable Environmental Regulations and Investing In Alternative Energy
No One Is Hitler*
* except Hitler
Free Hugs and/or Rational Discourse
I Wanted to Make a Sign, But I Worry I'm Blocking Others' Viewpoints!
Brains: Not Just For Zombies!
Those were just a few of the signs we saw ourselves. If you'd like to see more, BuzzFeed compiled photos of the 100 Best Signs from the Rally here. Want to start a conversation with your loved ones over a tasty, wholesome meal? The Family Dinner has got all the recipes you need, and then some.
Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrytrueman