Thursday, June 20, 2013

One True Ingredient: Family

This week’s food story is a little old-fashioned.

Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house have always been an important tradition in our family. We don’t make it every Sunday, but holidays and birthdays are usually a must, as are any random Sundays someone feels like making the effort to wrangle the troops and inform the others what they’re cooking. It’s a good way to connect at the end of the week, touch base with one another face to face, and have a meal together as a family.

Research has long promoted the benefits of family meals, even just once a week. They help reestablish bonds and help children feel more grounded, because mealtimes are storytimes. Our family is no different.

Some of my earliest memories are of eating at my grandma’s house, listening to my grandpa tell stories. He was a great story teller. I wish I could remember more of them. They were mostly family stories, something that happened to his dad or granddad, or farm stories, something the horse did that made him laugh or throw his hat on the ground and stomp on it in fury (the man had a temper but generally got over it quickly. And I wonder where my son gets it.) There was always a lot of laughing, a lot of food, and a couple bottles of beer. Living through the Depression made both of my grandparents appreciate a loaded table. They definitely passed that habit down to the rest of us. When my aunt and uncle visit there’s a running joke about that one time we almost ran out of something (this of course has never come close to happening).

Family dinner is supposed to be fun, a low-key time to relax with each other and spend time with each other. I didn’t appreciate the time when I was younger, before my grandpa died. I’m not sure any teenager can. No one ever forced me to go to supper, but somehow implicitly I knew that I would cause other people great hurt if I blew it off to go out with friends, or to stay in my room. Shame is a great motivator.

My favorite part has always been the stories. As we dish food onto our plates, my dad and grandpa were always the great storytellers. The act of sharing a meal, sharing a story, brings people together and reminds them that this is family, not all the bullshit that might go on away from the table, but right here, right now, the people you break bread with, share a scoop of food from the same pot with, these are the people who’ve got your back. And it reminds you, hey, I like this person, I’ve got their back too.

This concept of food sharing goes back to our ape roots. Primates use food sharing as a way to reinforce social bonds, between parent and offspring, between grooming partners, or even strangers. It’s a way of trading food for support, whatever kind of support that may be. And, science argues, that while giving away food shouldn’t help the individual survive, in the end it does because everybody needs support sometimes. Or more probably because they wanted to have sex with their dinner partner, but that’s another post.

Sunday dinner is also about history. It’s important to know where you came from. My STC and I both have a strong sense of family. When we named our twins, we looked to the archive of family names for inspiration. It was important our kids understand their history and be tied to it in a tangible way. And at Sunday dinner I’m sure the Offspring will have a chance to learn about the men he was named after. He probably won’t appreciate it at first; it’s easy to take family for granted. But when he gets older, and has those roots, and understands the kind of people he came from, my hope is that it’ll give him something to help ground him. My grandpa’s been gone fourteen years and gram, dad and I still think, well what would grandpa do? What decision would he want us to make? What would great-grandpa (who I never met but my dad spent extensive time with) think or say?

Having my grandmother right across the road has been a vital resource. She might be ninety, but she’s got more of her shit together than a person half her age. And though she’s slowing down, she can still babysit the Offspring for a couple hours her and there, and more importantly she’s there for support and to listen. With a new baby, a farm, a writing career, a job with USPS, and a STC in the military, there are a lot of challenges, and my grandmother has been around it all. So when I feel overwhelmed and sad she’s there to commiserate, empathize, and offer no wisdom, but a comforting “I been there, honey, it’ll work out.” Don’t ask me why that helps, but maybe it’s knowing how happy she and my grandpa were together and that they faced some of the same issues, jobs, a farm, babies, the military, loss. It wouldn’t be the same coming from someone closer to my age, but because gram is so far on the other side of it, it’s a comfort to have a visual that yes, this too shall pass.

That’s the importance of family dinner.


You might be asking where the food is in this food story. And when I started, I fully had the intention of describing the vegetables, the grilled sirloin, and how my son is mad for anything green: asparagus, spinach dip, squash, and key lime pie, but realized that part of this food story isn’t about the food. The food is a means to the end. It sounds corny, but this food story is really all about family.
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