Eat At Home by
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(244 Stories)

Prompted By Mealtime

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This doesn’t look anything like my kitchen table, but at least it’s round!

Growing up, my family had dinner all together every night. Breakfast was catch as catch can, except on Sundays when we had lox from the deli down the street and fresh bagels from the bakery a block past the deli, but even then I’m not sure whether we all ate that repast together or not. Lunch also may have been a haphazard affair, I have no specific memories about it. But dinner was sacred.

We ate in the kitchen at a big round table that had plenty of room, even when there were seven of us there.

We ate in the kitchen at a big round table that had plenty of room, even when there were seven of us there, including my grandparents. My mother was very emphatic about the virtues of a round table. No matter where one sat, she pointed out, everyone could see and talk with everyone else equally. My middle sister says “I remember being taught that round tables are the only tables that are good tables.” She has a round dining room table, and my oldest sister and I both have round kitchen tables, so we all obviously learned that lesson. (The featured image looks nothing like our table, which I can still see in my mind. But after spending a couple of hours searching for a round kitchen table, pedestal base, 72″ diameter, and finding nothing that looked like ours, I gave up and settled on this one.)

The table was in one corner of the kitchen, very close to two walls. (For those who read my kitchen renovation story, this did not change when the corner was pushed out, as that was a different corner.) We each had our own seat, which, while not assigned, was understood to belong to that person. My father had the seat in the corner, both because he was the least likely to get up to get anything, and because there were phones mounted on each wall which he needed to be able to reach. One phone was the office number and one was the house number. Frequently during dinner the house phone would ring and he would answer it. It would be the answering service (remember answering services? we referred to it as “the service”) calling him to tell him about somebody who was on the office phone. Then he would either give the service a message (of the “tell them to take two aspirin and call me in the morning” variety) or he would pick up the office phone with his other hand and talk to the person. This was considered acceptable behavior at the dinner table, because presumably a patient wouldn’t call after hours unless it was important. On the other hand, if one of us kids had gotten a call at dinner time, I’m sure we would have been required to tell the person we would call back later.

The conversation at our dinner table was always lively. Often it would be about things that happened at school. Sometimes my father would describe patients he had seen or operations he had performed that day, but when we all began to turn green listening to the gruesome details, my mother would make him stop. He also enjoyed encouraging debate. His favorite phrase was “Now just for the sake of argument. . . .” Then he would take a position on a controversial topic that he wanted us to argue with. My oldest sister was the only one who would engage with him, but I guess he kept hoping that my middle sister or I would argue too.

Another benefit to him of sitting in the corner was that sometimes he would fall asleep leaning back against the two walls. We would giggle about it and stay quiet so we didn’t wake him up. He was exhausted because he worked all the time. His medical office was attached to our house, and when he wasn’t seeing patients he was working on their files, and of course he went to the hospital at least once a day to make rounds. However, he was always with us in the kitchen for dinner, every single night. And so were all the rest of us. If we ever had any evening activities (and I don’t remember any, but there may have been), they must have taken place after dinner.

I do remember TV Dinners, and I’m trying to figure out when I had those. It must have been on the rare occasions when my parents were going out for dinner, leaving us kids at home with our grandparents. Rather than burdening my grandmother with cooking for us (and knowing that we probably wouldn’t like what she made), we got to have TV Dinners. I thought they were great, with each item in its own section of the tray, and even a dessert. As far as I remember, we ate them at the kitchen table like a regular meal, not in the living room in front of the TV. I don’t think I even realized that they were called TV Dinners because you were expected to eat them while watching TV.

In college, of course, meals were provided in the dorms, and mealtime was a nice opportunity to visit with people. The trick was to arrive around the same time as your friends. I can remember many times when I sat down with a group, and it turned out that they were all almost finished eating, so they left when I had barely started. Then I had to pick up my tray and move to another table with people who still had food on their plates.

In the years between college and marriage, when I lived with one or more roommates, we sometimes ate together but often did not. It was too complicated to try to coordinate our schedules, for the most part. Although my first year of law school, my roommate and I decided that we would cook and eat together, and that was really nice.

Once I had children of my own, I followed the same pattern I had learned as a child. We all always ate together, no matter what. If we had to eat a little earlier or a little later than usual to accommodate someone’s schedule, we did that, so that we could have that family time at dinner every night. I did start out with the idea that they had to eat what was being served, even if they didn’t like it, because we weren’t running a restaurant. That had certainly been the case when I was young. But eventually I gave in, and let them make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or ramen, or mac and cheese. And once Molly developed all kinds of digestive issues, we started buying frozen dinners that were non-dairy and sometimes vegan, and she could heat those up in the microwave. But she still had to eat her special meals at the same time as the rest of us. Different foods were okay, but not different times to eat them.

None of my kids have kids of their own, so I don’t know if they would continue the pattern or not. I like to think that they would.

 

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    I loved your story, Suzy, probably because your family dinners sounded so much like my own growing up. Everyone came to the table at the same time and lively conversation usually ensued. You even reminded me of two aspects of our own dining room customs that I had not thought of: “assigned” seats and always a round table — though our dining room tables, both when I was growing up and when my kids were young, had several leaves that could be added to the middle to accomodate larger groups.

    My recollection of college meals was a bit different. If we had the time, my roomies and I would always get there at the beginning of the meal — 5:30 — and plan to stay until the end — 7:00. If several groups of friends dropped in and out during that period; so be it; there were always a few of us there. And at 7:00, as the dining hall was closing, we’d go back to our suite to watch and listen to Walter Cronkite tell us about the Vietnam War.

    Knowing your Retro story title “signature,” I assumed “Eat at Home” was a song title, but not one I was familiar with. So I had to look it up. Linda and Paul McCartney, who knew? Did you remember this one?

    • Suzy says:

      Of course the huge difference between your family dinners and mine was that you ate in the dining room. We used our dining room once a year, on Thanksgiving, and that was it!

      Re college, I was thinking about both Comstock and Lowell House meals, although the feeling of difficulty finding people to sit with was more at Lowell House. It was different being a girl in a House of almost all guys – choosing where to sit was much more complicated!

      I confess I did not know the McCartney song before this week. I didn’t pay much attention to his solo career, especially early on (this song was from 1971). Definitely not as good as the Beatles!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    We had similar family dinner experiences growing up, Suzy. I still think that was a valuable experience and lament (see my story) that my own kids find it hard to continue it.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good commentary on all forms of dining through the years, Suzy, from your home life through college, early work life (so different) to recreating the same dinner rules once you had your own children. Interesting how Molly’s food sensitivities changed what food was allowed, but not the mealtime routine.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Yes, I came full circle after having numerous roommates with whom I did not share meals. The fact that in both of my marriages my husband has done the bulk of the cooking helped a lot!

  4. Suzy, I love your mother’s preference for a round table, it’s certainly the most inclusive and intimate.

    For the deck at our Connecticut country house I bought a table that would seat 8 – altho not round but square. We were part of a group of 8 close city friends who took turns hosting the group for dinner, and we took our turn in Connecticut every August making it a weekend with everyone sleeping over. Renee, one of the group, had a Massachusetts country house and she hosted us there every July. I wrote about Renee in my Retro story COMFORT FOOD. Sadly over the past two years we lost her as well as another in our group and I think of them often, especially when I see the big square table on our deck.

    • Suzy says:

      Dana, thanks for reading my story. Not sure how your comment about your square table relates to it – sounds like it should be a story of your own.

      • Oops Suzy, sorry if I strayed from your story but I very much related to your mother’s sensitivity to a table being conducive to togetherness. That sparked the memory of my search for a table large enough for my special group of 8. Round may have been better yet, but square worked too – certainly better than a rectangle or oblong table.

        And I can just see your hard-working dad nodding off with a full tummy at the end of his long day!

  5. Marian says:

    All the details you write about brought back additional memories for me, Suzy. It’s amazing how we all ate what was served way back when, although when I was about 11 I drew the line at most dairy (very radical for that time). I hope younger people see the value in eating together–sans looking at their devices, of course.

    • Suzy says:

      I’m looking forward to reading your story, which I’m sure will do the same for me. We Jersey girls have so much in common! Very advanced of you to give up dairy at age 11 – was it a digestive issue, or just a taste preference?

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    I am impressed that stories on this topic, and the one on manners, emphasize the importance of eating together, and that is a good thing. Sharing food and time with others is key to relationships, which make us human. Thanks for the story.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, even if we didn’t always love the food that was served (and I didn’t even talk about that aspect of mealtime), being all together was the best part, both in my family of origin and the family I created.

  7. Hi Suzy, I like this story. Love the detail about the round table and all three daughters having their own round table once you were all on your own.

  8. John Zussman says:

    Really nice details here. While others have commented on the food and the table, I want to focus on the small detail about your father taking a position on a controversial issue and hoping you would engage with him, but only your oldest sister did. Why not, do you think? And what did you take away from that?

    • Suzy says:

      I was too intimidated to argue with him about anything when I was young. I remember the first time I did, when I was in my 30s. I had already gone to law school and he was trying to tell me what the law was about a wife taking her husband’s name, and I said “no, you’re wrong!” I thought the earth was going to open up and swallow me, but it didn’t. I was so proud and happy that I could stand up to him. It was becoming a lawyer that made me able to do it.

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