A Family That Eats Together
This past week, our 14-year old daughter informed me that we needed to buy a new waffle maker. Barely concealing her smile, she mentioned that it was an ultra-high-end brand that retails for over $1,000. I gently explained to her that such a purchase was, in fact, counterproductive, as it definitely didn’t make waffles that were any tastier and for $1,000 we could buy enough ingredients to make waffles for breakfast the better part of an entire school year. But I did start to wonder about the market segment that appliances like that target.
The same day, I finally got around to reading Salena Zito’s excellent piece in the Washington Examiner about big Sunday dinners, and how one man has undertaken to resurrect them in the hopes of restoring the sense of community they fostered when he was younger. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is the locus classicus for those bemoaning the atomization of contemporary American society, but – as Zito notes – there may be some encouraging signs that enough people sense it and are starting to do something about it.
What does this have to do with fancy kitchen appliances? Joshua Foer wrote a delightful book about competitors in the annual memory championships and, in the process, became a memory champ himself. One of the keys to remembering lists of anything, be they numbers, names, shopping items or lines of poetry, is creating texture or friction by adding additional dimensions to what you’re trying to remember. By adding, for example, mental images of items on a shopping list (like a stick of deodorant shampooing itself so you remember to buy both deodorant and shampoo), the additional mental energy you expend in organizing it can actually improve your recall.
The more I thought about this waffle maker, the more I wondered about some of today’s new appliances. As a culinary dilletante, I celebrate major advances like Stephen Poplawski’s blender in 1922 or Pierre Verdon’s home version of the commercial Robot-Coupe that debuted in Paris in 1971. They simplified and automated tasks that were very onerous by hand, if not altogether impossible. But my curmudgeonly side is reflexively suspicious of dubious advances like pre-cooked chicken breast cutlets or pre-sliced vegetables. Extrapolating from Foer, I think there’s value to doing your own kitchen prep, and even more value in pressing your kids into service as part of one big kitchen brigade. I think we value homemade meals differently than we do restaurant or take-out meals, even in ways not immediately obvious.
It’s always nice to enjoy table service at an upscale restaurant, of course, but eating is about a great deal more. When you serve up a dish that is completely ravaged by your family, the feeling of satisfaction is both extremely primal and extraordinarily gratifying. I can’t build a deck or change the brakes on my car. These are limitations I made my peace with years ago. But I can eat, I can cook, and I can manage people. Combining those can make for fun that is also educational and, with some luck and practice, tasty, as well.
In our case, meals are one big way we mark Jewish religious observances, from weekly Sabbath meals packed with family and friends to major productions like holidays and life cycle events. But my Italian friends always talk about their grandmothers’ Sunday dinners, which can play a similar role in binding one generation to the next. Whatever everyone is gathered for, they have to eat. And when generations are all together – and eating homemade food – talk inevitably turns to how one matriarch or another used to prepare this dish or that. The sights, sounds and aromas beget nuts-and-bolts talk of recipes, ingredients, tools and techniques – do you cook the meatballs before adding them to the sauce? What kind of breadcrumbs do you use? Where do you get these tomatoes? Is this cake from a mix? Your grandmother used to do this all by hand every week, you know, not with fancy appliances – tired and aching hands can recall the dexterity and fleetness of years ago. Family long gone suddenly find room at the table. Achievements and accomplishments are remembered. Resemblances to children are mooted, measured, and debated. Smiles, some tearful, break out and make their way around. New memories are forged, in no small part, alloyed to older ones.
Everybody eats, and it’s one of the first and most fundamental ways we connect to our mothers. My mother and I share a lot of our culinary repertoire, but we have our differences. Maybe it’s a window into how I began asserting some independence as an adult (which is a phenomenon that fascinates me when I observe it in other people). I love a lot of her signature dishes, but I have tastes she just cannot stand (like anything smoked or very spicy). So we have a light-hearted competition when it comes to the dishes we both make and she keeps turning up her nose at my brisket. But, sweet or savory, our bonding over food continues.
The foods we ate as kids can go on to resonate with us for a long time. It’s another reason I love food and use it to connect with my kids. My mother grew up in Israel, and has an expansive palate. She is as adept at making tagine chicken as she is Wiener schnitzel, Hungarian goulash or Persian rice. We’ve faithfully kept some of her greatest hits, but we have incorporated her openness to new gustatory adventures and I’ve Shanghaied each of our kids to help make Texas-style brisket, Japanese dashi, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, Pad Thai and sous-vide chicken with Florentine fennel pollen. I didn’t have to grow up enjoying them to encourage our kids to learn about other traditions and to join me in learning (and eating, of course).
We have several signature dishes in our house and we get the kids involved as much as we can. Chicken soup, for example, is a mainstay on the Friday night menu, and our twins now make the matzo balls, in the latest “mom” job that has been delegated to kids. After the weekend, we strain the leftover soup and reduce it by about ¾ or so to use as stock in all kinds of other dishes (something of a cheat to purists, I will concede) that the kids help prepare. These jobs – and skills – become parts in a much bigger portfolio of family heritage, and one that engages all five senses. I share my childhood memories, my mother’s techniques, my own personal tweaks and lessons learned from experiments undertaken and the kids’ reactions. My hope is that all this helps the memories stick, and becomes the foundation for my kids’ own culinary heritage that gets passed on to our grandchildren. With any luck, it’ll be one I still recognize, too.