All across the internet today, people are sharing their stories of family dinner in honor of the publication of Shauna and Danny Ahern’s new book, Gluten-Free Girl Every Day. I thought I’d post a little something I wrote ages ago about my parents and their devotion to ensuring that we ate good solid food for dinner and learned to be civilized people in the process.
I grew up in a family that ate dinner together nearly every night. My mom was the primary cook and she firmly believed in the power of squash, in the quick and filling effects of ground beef scrambled with canned tomatoes, fresh oregano and broken bits of cooked spaghetti and, when all other things failed, the reliability of a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole wheat.
She cooked seasonally before it was universally trendy, mostly because my dad planted a garden every year but would lose interest in it just around harvest time. Never someone who was able to let good things go to waste, she struggled each summer to keep up with the tide of zucchini, spinach, tomatoes and string beans that flowed forth from the backyard. Many years there would be 12 to 15 quart bags of frozen stewed tomatoes piled in neat stacks in the freezer, ready for soups and pots of sauce throughout the winter.
She worked part time and then full time throughout my childhood but always made time to cook dinner. The meal rarely varied in that there was always a protein and a vegetable and frequently, but not always, a starch. When I think of the food from my early years, I see a plate with a chicken leg, a pile of steamed broccoli and small mound of brown rice. Sometimes there was a hamburger patty instead of the chicken, or string beans in place of the broccoli, but she relied on this formula almost exclusively.
My dad made a priority out of being home for dinner too, even in the days in the early eighties, when he was in the process of starting a business. Many nights, he’d drive home from work, eat dinner with us and then go back to his office for two or three additional hours, to plow through the never-ending pile of work. While my mom cooked, he attended to the development of our table manners. It was my dad who taught me proper handling of my napkin, to wait for everyone to be served before beginning, and that one should never use their fingers to shove food onto the fork. His mostly-patient training has served me over and over again in life.
That said, there was one quick weeknight dinner that we often ate during which my parents relaxed the standards for table behavior. My mom dreamed up the idea of serving cold tuna salad with creamy mashed potatoes in the very early days of her cooking career. When asked what prompted the combination, she always said that she liked the textural contrast of having something crunchy along with soft mashed potatoes.
My sister and I most loved this meal for its sculptability. It was the ideal food for playing with. I would carefully cover my mound of tuna salad with a frosting of potatoes, making sure that it was perfectly smooth and even before carving it into pie-shaped wedges and eating it (admittedly, the potatoes would get sort of cold by the time I was done, but it was an essential part of the joy of the meal for me).
Raina would vigorously stir her tuna into the potatoes, until she had a plate full of unrecognizable mash, with just an occasional fleck of pale green or red from the veggies. Our parents never said a word about us playing with our food when tuna salad and mashed potatoes were on the menu.
While we don’t yet have kids to bring into the family dinner fold, Scott and I eat dinner together nearly every night. Often, the meals we share are quite similar to the ones that my mom used serve (this apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of wanting to make food that tastes good, isn’t overly complex, and doesn’t take all day to make). There’s something so very comfortable about wrapping up a busy day with another person over a meal. I love many things about being married, but this is among my favorite aspects.
What does your family dinner look like?