I’ve always, always been a fan of family dinners, so I’ve been fully supportive of the new-found initiative by many organizations and agencies promoting such a thing. When I heard about Blog for Family Dinner, I knew I had to write a post about this!
In my world, current and past, family dinners are a given; in fact, I never really thought of not having dinner with my parents at the kitchen table every night! Every afternoon I would come home from school and hit the books to get my homework done asap. (I’m a dork, so sue me!) Up until 7th or 8th grade, my mom stayed at home, so she’d be brainstorming and preparing dinner before I even got home. When I got older, however, she would come home from work at least an hour after me, so dinner planning was a bit less… planned. Regardless, 90% of the time we’d have a home-cooked meal. (The other 10% would be those nights where we’re both not in the mood, and simply ask my dad to pick something up for us on his way home!)
Age two -ish, eating something while at the beach with my parents.
My mom would start cooking dinner when my dad called on the beginning of his drive home which, thanks to the Long Island Expressway rush-hour, would take about an hour or so. My mom would do the majority of the cooking, but I was always eager to help. Usually my job was to make the salad and set the table, and my dad usually cleaned up the table while my mom put the dishes in the dishwasher. On the days where we wouldn’t cook, my dad would usually stop at this great Italian restaurant and get us linguine and clam sauce or pizza, or get Chinese take-out. No matter if it was cooked in our kitchen or not, we still ate it on our plates, using real silverware (or our chopsticks set), and at our table. My dad would come home at around 6:30-7:00pm, change out of his suit and into lounge-wear, and we’d sit at the table for dinner.
We’d talk about our day: mom about work (when she was employed) and/or the daily
neurotic, one-sided, gossipy phone call with her mother or sister (when she stayed at home); dad about business-y sort of stuff that usually went over my head; and me about school (well, whatever my parents could drag out of me, as I wasn’t much of a talker). We did have a TV in our kitchen (*gasp!* sacrilege!) but we’d only have one of three things on, and at a low enough volume that we could still talk during commercials: Jeopardy!, the news, or 60 Minutes. Looking back, I think my parents wanted me to stay up-to-date on what was going on in the world. (Thanks, mom! Thanks, dad!)
When trying to come up with how to express my feelings about family dinners, I didn’t want to spit out the same stuff that everyone knows and reads about: eating together decreases children’s risks of obesity and getting into trouble, kids get better grades, the family unit is more stable, blah blah blah. That’s all good and all very valid, but what I want to share with you is simple: the memories. Having great memories of family dinners is why I know eating at a dinner table will without a doubt be a part of my future family’s routine. So, without further ado, here are my five favorite family dinner memories:
- The Night the Ladies Put Dad in His Place — I don’t remember this, but this story has been told so many times by my mother that I feel like I do! Just for a bit of back-story, I’m my mother’s only child but my dad had two children with his first wife: my half-brother and my half-sister, 18 and 16 years older than me, respectively. I was probably two years old and we were living in our “old house”. We were eating dinner at our wood-panel covered particle board dinner table in our classic 80s kitchen (avocado green dishwasher, corn husk yellow refrigerator, orange and yellow linoleum tiles). I was innocently eating dinner when my dad, assuming I had finished, started eating off of my plate. Well, I immediately start bawling and say, “Da-da-daddy… *sniffle*… I’m not done!!!” My mother, a professional at the sport of guilt-tripping, says, “Ed! You’re stealing off of your daughter’s plate!” You’d think he’d know I had the same food-loving attitude as my older siblings! How dare he!
- The Night I Learned About “Manitas” — My mom is 100% Puerto Rican and is the main reason why I love trying new things. Most of my experiences trying different Puerto Rican dishes growing up resulted in a love for them: pasteles, platanos, acapurria, yuca root, mofongo, avocado, mango, etc. But, I don’t love them all! One night my mom was preparing something for dinner that she said I should try, but forewarned me that I may not like it. She called it “manitas”, which means “little hands” in Spanish. I looked in the pot she had on the stove and saw what looked like little white, lumpy cubes simmering in broth. She saw the look of confusion on my face and told me, “They’re pig knuckles… well, pig feet.” Seeing me practically turn green, my lovely mother told me that I could call my dad and ask him to pick up a pizza for the two of us instead. She ate the “pig knuckles” over white rice while my dad and I held our noses, averted our eyes from what she was doing, and happily ate our delicious New York pizza.
- The Many Nights I Brushed Up on Spanish — As I already mentioned, my main supper-time job was to make salad and set the table. My mother always took it upon herself to make this educational: sometimes she would teach me to properly cut certain vegetables; sometimes she’d teach me a new salad dressing to make from scratch; and, many times she’d take the time to teach me new words in Spanish. Being Puerto Rican, my mother is fluent in both Spanish and English. Figuring it would be an easy A for me, I took Spanish in junior high school and high school (4 years total, in addition to one semester of it in college). Indeed, it was an easy A for me, and my mom is definitely a major reason for that. I learned “cucharra” (spoon), “servilleta” (napkin), and “arroz” (rice), to name just a few, far earlier than the curriculum in school would have me learn them. In fact, I basically knew nouns and verbs taught as far as my 2nd year in Spanish as early as elementary school! Of course, my father never picked up on the language like I did. Even after 27 years of marriage, my father knows nothing more than “garbanzo beans” and a few dirty words in Spanish!
- The Night I Ruled the Kitchen — For those of you who have always had siblings, hear this: as an only child, you really really have to learn to entertain yourself. This was very true for me, given that nearly all of my memories at home were of myself and my parents (my brother was a college freshman when I was born, and my sister left for college when I was a year and a half old). I’ve always loved food, so with an abundance of free time, imagination, and cookbooks at my disposal, it’s not surprising that I found many ways to keep myself occupied in the kitchen, far beyond my Easy Bake Oven! If memory serves me correct, it was my parents’ anniversary and I was probably no older than 10 or 11 years old. It was the weekend and I was hunting for something to do. I opened up my mom’s Betty Crocker Cookbook and desperately searched for a recipe with which to surprise my parents. I found something that I knew I loved at restaurants and for which we had the ingredients on hand: quiche lorraine. Not only did I make my first pie crust from scratch (something I honestly can’t do today), but my quiche came out great. I set our dining room table (not just our kitchen table… this was a special event, after all!), made a salad, poured glasses of Pepsi, and set my quiche on the table for my parents’ surprise. To this day, they still talk about “how Jessie made us a quiche when she was little”. My mom especially loves telling everyone that I barricaded the entrances to our kitchen with chairs and constantly proclaimed, “Don’t come in here! And I promise I’ll clean up everything!”
- The Night I Finally Got Final Jeopardy Right — I mentioned earlier that one of the only things we’d put on TV during dinner was Jeopardy! Well, when you haven’t even graduated high school yet, it’s hard to even understand the questions (or are they the answers??), nonetheless answer them. Well, one night we’re watching our show and my parents keep answering questions while I spat out responses that are very obviously incorrect. I think I was 14 or 15 at the time, so unless it pertained to basic trigonometry, I wasn’t going to gain any imaginary Jeopardy money anytime soon! Final Jeopardy came up, which I’d never even considered to be answer-able for me. I don’t remember the question (answer??) but I blurted out, “Habitat for Humanity”… and I was right! I’ll always remember the first correct answer I had to Final Jeopardy, and I’d like to think that I got an extra dessert that night.
When I think about the families that don’t have regular dinners together, I’m honestly in disbelief. It is such a norm in my life that an alternative to eating dinner with my parents every night just never entered my mind until probably when my siblings had kids, or when I met my boyfriend. I’m pretty confident my brother has dinner at a table with his family, and I’m sort of sure my sister does, too. My boyfriend’s family didn’t have dinner in the same way as my family did (kids ate different meals than the parents, and they eat much later than I do – around 8:30-9:00pm) and as a result my boyfriend and his younger brother are two of the pickiest eaters you’ll ever meet. (Don’t get me wrong – I love my boyfriend’s parents! They’re some of the best cooks ever, and they themselves eat a wide variety of yummy food! Unfortunately their kids fell far from the proverbial tree.)
My boyfriend and I both agree that eating together as a family will be something we will do with our kids, and he admits he doesn’t want our offspring to have his eating habits. (I guess he knows being a food flirt is a good thing!) I only hope that our kids have some crazy memories about family dinners just like I’ve had!
I hope they learn how to say “pepper” in Spanish (“pimienta”) and hand me three napkins when I tell them, “Dame tres servilletas, por favor!”
I hope they surprise us with a home-cooked meal of their own. (Dear future offspring: I still love quiche! Love, Mommy)
I hope they forgive me when I cook something they think stinks to high heaven and won’t touch with a 10-foot stick. (Don’t worry! Daddy will buy you some New York pizza instead!)
I hope I have the chance to bake them congratulatory cookies when they get a game show question correct for the first time.
Dinner is more than just food: it’s time spent taking in what will soon be distant memories!