I grew up in a household with six kids in the 1960’s. Dinner time could only be described as barely controlled chaos. With four boys swimming in a morass of testosterone it was not uncommon to have a dinner roll ka-tonked off the side of your head when you requested bread from the other end of the table. Asking for butter (which was actually margarine, of course), was likewise completely risky business.
In short, dinner was a Darwinian affair requiring cunning and dexterity. Any and everything was passed around the table only once. If you didn’t get enough on the first shot, you weren’t getting more. A gallon of milk barely made it around the table. The oldest three of us quickly figured out that the only way to get more was to pour your glass full, drink half of it, then refill before passing it on, causing an immediate firestorm of protest from my younger brothers and sister. It was also imperative that you quickly identify and skewer the biggest-ass pork chop/ham slice/slice of meatloaf on the platter when it came your way because it was your one and only shot at sustenance for the evening.
When my school mates joined for dinner, they were always a bit shaken by the carnal frenzy that defined our family meals. They soon learned to adapt or went home hungry. It’s also worth noting that my then future brother-in-law did not return to our house for over six months after his first Easter dinner at the Gaiser table. Enough said.
Eventually, with the patience of a saint and the aid of blunt instruments, my Mom managed to instill some semblance of table manners in the six of us. That in itself is a minor miracle. Beyond that, she also managed in a very sly way to instill the dining ritual in us as a family, and not because she and my Dad were raised in the European tradition of fine dining with candle lit extravaganzas and lengthy erudite conversations. That was as remote as the Dog Star. Instead, it was the mere act of gathering the entire herd once a day so we could sit down and have dinner. That even if all hell had broken loose during the previous 12 hours—and it often did--we had the certainty of knowing that we as a family would share a meal.
Years later when Carla and I first moved to the city and were both bartending, the dining ritual continued. On our rare nights off together, we either went out or stayed in and cooked dinner for one another. Explorations into the Byzantine menus of the now sadly long-gone Gourmet magazine often ensued with the kitchen getting completely trashed and us limping to the dinner table like stunned livestock after vigorous and sometimes pyrotechnic experiments in the kitchen.
The dining ritual continued unabated after our lives went from “man on man” to “zone” in terms of having kids. Looking back on those years, I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things Carla and I have given our kids is the many years of the dining ritual. When it was dinnertime life came to a screeching halt. Once dinner was plated and hit the table, everyone gathered regardless of whatever else on the planet was going on. Maria, now out of grad school and working for the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has told me many times that the thing she misses most about home life is sharing dinner, especially the hours of hanging out at the table after dinner was over finishing a bottle of wine and chatting about everything under the sun.
Does the dining ritual guarantee a happy family or a long relationship-marriage? Not necessarily but it’s a primo opportunity to spend time with your partner and family. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked for Carla and me for over 40 years. It might just work for you. Finally, I think that the dining ritual is especially important now with the pandemic. Sheltering in place means we need connection and community more than ever. Sharing a meal and a bottle of wine is not only sustenance--it’s a much-needed balm for the soul. I hope everyone reading this missive is able to do just that on a regular basis.
Cheers—and stay safe!