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Column: In Praise of the Family Meal

For the Valley News
Published: 2/11/2017 9:01:15 PM
Modified: 2/12/2017 12:03:07 AM

In the catalog of human achievement — paper airplanes, Parcheesi, The Pirates of Penzance — one entry has been on my mind lately. It appeals to people of every walk of life. Older folks are big fans. Children love it. Parents from Fairlee to Finland treasure it. I speak of a mighty tradition: The Family Meal.

During our time in rural Burgundy, France, we got very good at the family meal. In France, one eats less for the caloric necessity and more for the communal experience of enjoying victuals ensemble. Our weekday family lunches — the children came home from school in the middle of the day — often lasted a full hour or more, and featured several courses: shredded carrots with raisins and a zippy vinaigrette to start; pan-seared duck breast with lentils for a main course; a selection of raw milk cheeses; and a “sweet thing,” which my boys laboriously selected at the bakery where we bought our daily baguette. I cannot lie: The food there was over-the-top delicious, and we loved turning fresh ingredients into hot lunch. But the lasting memories from that period will never be about what was on our plates. Though none of us stopped to think about it at the time, we grew closer as a family during those meals.

Here in the Upper Valley, an hour-long weekday family lunch is as likely as silverware at Subway. Kids eat at school, and “grown-ups” often spend 10 minutes chewing while looking at some sort of screen. My children’s first words after school are frequently, “I didn’t have time to finish my sandwich.” We almost never sit down as a family for breakfast. In the midst of the multi-act morning routine (“Did you brush your teeth? Do you want popcorn or pretzels for your snack today? Where are your library books? I am begging you: Please put your mittens on!”), it is a small miracle if everyone gets out the door with something in their belly.

But come darkness, we try our best to unite as a family. Sometimes, we parents just sit while the boys eat; sometimes we break bread together. We don’t have many rules for our sons, ages 6 and almost 4. Try everything. Clear your own plate. “If you’re down, you’re done.” They love to descend from their chairs for matters biological (“I need to tinkle”) and nonsensical (“But Dad, I just need to get my dinosaur.”) We are like hundreds of millions of other families the world over, content in our conformity. We use this time to share stories, tell jokes, experience new tastes, and learn about each other and the world around us.

I suspected that area families engaged in this same tradition, but I worried that modern life had made irrevocable inroads, somehow spoiling one of life’s simplest pleasures.

To find out, I asked some Upper Valley dwellers about their mealtime habits. What came through in their answers was a deep reverence for sacred time as a family. Ryan Gardner of Norwich said, “It’s a chance to spend at least a little time together every day ... a respite from what is often too hectic otherwise.” Tim Draper and his wife, Kaitlin, parents of two young children in Etna, try to eat dinner together every night. Tim summed up what seems to be a universal sentiment: “It’s important that the family has a regular and predictable time to be together without any technology … just talking the old-fashioned way.”

Erin Butler, with a 3-year-old and a kindergartner, is deep in the throes of small children. Her eight weekly family meals in Norwich last 20 minutes “or until someone starts crying.” But she clearly values whatever time she gets with her husband and children at the table, saying she wishes that “dinner lasted a little longer.” Recollections of meals previous (“I loved family holiday dinners (pre-kids) when the extended family would sit around the table for hours talking, sharing memories (and) funny stories”) fuel her hopes for meals future.

When Norwich resident Peter Guillette talks about what he likes most about his 16 weekly family meals, he may as well be offering his recipe for happiness: “Spending time together with no distractions, enjoying a home-cooked meal.”

Danielle Scully of Hartford and her three siblings “always ate dinner together growing up.” Now, she and her husband, Brian, scramble to get all the members of their blended family together. When the troops are all assembled, she said, Brian’s “favorite part is that moment when every person at the table is engaged and present and involved in some interaction together.”

Of course, let’s admit that we are also pretty proud of ourselves when we navigate a day of work, children, marriage, in-laws, laundry and exercise and still get edible food onto plates. Draper offered up one of the great truths of the family meal: “It’s ‘the right thing to do’ which makes me feel like I’m a good parent.”

For me, family meals remain a signature advantage of being human. They are a breeding ground for memories, capable of birthing great laughter one minute and forcing us to confront dark realities the next. Perhaps most important, the table is a remarkable classroom where we learn essential skills for life. Patience. Politeness. Sharing. Listening. Appreciation. Debating. Helping. Attentiveness. Waiting. Gratitude.

I asked Brigitte Mosenthal, a Parisian woman who married an Upper Valley man, if she had a favorite memory of a family meal, either as a child in France or here in the U.S. She wrote back, “Too many to talk about,” with a little smiley face at the end.

Cheers to that. Bon appetit!

Mark Lilienthal lives in Norwich. He can be reached at mlilient@gmail.com.

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