In the book I mentioned yesterday, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, Miriam Weinstein fully explores the importance of the family meal – and as it turns out, its whole is worth more than its parts.
Eating together is more than a “magic bullet” against teen pregnancy and drug use (though research certainly seems to indicate a strong tie, the chicken-and-egg question is almost certainly at play here.)
It’s about more than good nutrition, though I’m confident that almost anything that comes out of my kitchen – even when I incorporate some convenience foods – is healthier than a meal we might grab at the drive-thru.
It’s about more than time spent together: sure, that’s important, but there are a lot of ways to get “quality time” without family meals.
Weinstein explores, in detail, the anthropological, the social, the ritualistic, and even the spiritual history and modern benefits of sitting down and breaking bread together. And thinking about her book last night, I began to realize how much what we eat together – and how we eat it – becomes a part of our family’s story – not just now but for generations to come.
This month’s Life is a Special Occasion theme is family. And I’m glad it coincides with my November “food” topic, because to me, food and family are inexorably linked. Think about it: when was the last time you went to a family get-together that didn’t involve some kind of food? And doesn’t, over time, the food offered at a family’s gatherings become woven into the fabric of that family’s history?
When I was a young girl growing up in Michigan’s (freezing) Upper Peninsula, our food was filling, budget-conscious, rib-sticking and relatively bland. Ethnic spices or unusual ingredients were rare at our town grocery. Mom made meatloaf and potatoes, roasted chicken and potatoes, pot roast and…potatoes. There was always a veggie, but generally it was separated from the rest of the meal and served with only butter or salt. I remember a friend whose mother regularly made tacos, which I thought was so exotic. Looking back, I don’t think she even seasoned the ground beef, beyond salt.
I spent my high-school years living with my father and stepmother, Brenda. Brenda is a vegetarian, and meals tended to be either pasta or casseroles made with what I termed “smeat”, short for “simulated meat.” I wasn’t a huge fan (after growing up with a meat-and-potatoes mom, I had a hard time dealing with all that sauce) but there were always sliced-up veggies to snack on…or if I was lucky, perhaps a slice of her legendary banana bread.
Spending my first holiday with Jon was a little like being a stranger in a new land: while my mother-in-law Shirley cooked a lot of the same kinds of meals I’d grown up with – roast, chicken, turkey and stuffing – her snacks were completely different from what I was used to. Shirley always serves little weenies (I’m sure they have a proper name, but that’s what we always call them), shrimp and cocktail sauce, and a relish tray loaded with olives and mini pickles. (Luckily for me, she also stocks up on cheese and crackers and several boxes of Chocolate Charlie.)
Fifteen years later, I just can’t imagine spending a holiday without a spread of weenies, shrimp, olives and pickles…even though I don’t actually partake in any of them.
Now, when I think about what my kids’ food memories will be when they look back to growing up in our house, I realize that my growing family’s “food culture” is a blend of what Jon and I grew up with, with our own twist. I serve up meat-and-potatoes meals regularly, though I do a lot more experimenting with spices than my mom probably could.
I also dabble in vegetarian cuisine, though I steer very clear of any sort of “simulated meat”, and my kids can’t wait for the bananas to turn brown so I’ll make Brenda’s bread recipe. My sister-in-law Jenna and I like to get together pretty regularly and try our hand at new dishes we’ve never had before. (Sometimes the kids eat them, sometimes they go for the veggies and chicken nuggets we offer as a substitute.)
My husband regularly takes the boys out for hot wings, a nod to family memories with his relatives in Buffalo, NY.
And when we have a holiday gathering at our house? Yep, more often than not I’m stocking up on shrimp, putting out the relish tray with weenies, olives, and baby pickles, and cracking open a box of Chocolate Charlie…just like my mother-in-law.
The more I think about it the more I love the idea of our family traditions living on, splintered and modified and personalized, for generations to come. I love to think about my great-great-grandkids possibly still serving up baby pickles and banana bread alongside the other foods that have been introduced along the way.
It’s a nice reminder that the food I serve my family – whether for a special occasion or any old dinner – goes far beyond that hour, that day, our little family unit.
We really are writing our family histories with every meal we make, every snack we serve.
What’s your family’s “food story”? Which parts of your childhood food memories play a part in your kids’ lives…and which do you hope live on for many generations to come?
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