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 awash in more testosterone “than you could shake a stick at,” as my Mom used to say, 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 sleuth, cunning, and dexterity. Any and everything was passed around the table only once. If you didn’t get enough on that 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 inevitable and 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. My school mates, needless to say, were always a bit taken aback 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 sneaky 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 share something. That even if all hell had broken loose during the previous 12 hours, we had the certainty of knowing that we as a family would share a meal, for better or worse.
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 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. Such is the stuff of magic and memory.
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 our many years of the dining ritual. Maria, literally graduating from UNC Chapel Hill this past week, and Patrick, soon to be 19, have grown up their entire lives with the dining ritual. That means when it’s dinnertime, life comes to a screeching halt; that once dinner is plated and hits the dinner table, everyone gathers regardless of whatever else on the planet is going on. Maria has told me many times that the thing she missed most about home after going back east to school was dinner time, especially the hours of hanging out at the table after dinner was over, chatting about everything under the sun.
Does the dining ritual guarantee a happy family or a long relationship/marriage? No guarantees here as all the conversation in the world may not be able to address your shocking dysfunction. But take heart, because the dining ritual is a primo number one opportunity to learn how to communicate with your partner/significant other/spouse or whatever the term is at the moment. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked for me for 40 years. It might work for you.