Family dinners have been one of my favorite parts of each day. It’s always a time to gather around food with the people I love most, mixing nutritious bites of dinner with conversation about our days. The food that brings us together as a family each night has varied throughout the years but it has always served the same purpose; to bring us together each evening around a cozy table to spend time together.
My parents and our life situations have always encouraged adventurous eating. Crawfish, alligator meat, spicy jambalaya, and a host of king cakes from Louisiana. Halibut, monstrous bear claw donuts stuffed with apple, wild rhubarb, and my first experiences of Thai food came from Alaska. And then a new world of cuisine from where we moved next: Indonesia. There we dined over Mi Goreng, Chicken Satay, Lumpia and endless bowls of rice. We also had access to fresh tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, rambutan, and papaya. Throughout our time in Indonesia we toured over 20 countries, sitting down for family meals in each new locale. Fish n’ chips in Australia, Peking Duck with plum sauce in China, a foul-smelling cheese factory in Switzerland (we didn’t eat much at that meal), heaping bowls of noodles followed by 7/11 slushies in Singapore, Soba and sushi in Japan, dahl and naan in India, and brahts and gummy bears from a train station in Germany. After our time in Indonesia, I experienced gained a love for sweet tea, pulled pork, snow cones, and cheese enchiladas after living in Texas and Oklahoma.
Needless to say, I’ve tried a wide variety of foods (and I’m talking wide variety – imagine a second grade version of me on a field trip staring across the table at a cow brain), but it’s not the food that I remember most. Often what I remember while reflecting back on my meals over the years are the conversations I’ve had at the dinner table, my parents genuine interest in the happenings of our lives, and the quality time spent together each and every night. This experience was such an integral part of my upbringing that I feel lost without family dinner. Even now that I’m in college I’m lucky to have roommates that enjoy eating with me each night for ‘family dinners’. We sit around our small apartment dining table over monstrous piles of veggies, pasta or sometimes cupcakes, and share little snippets of our days with one another. Although it is routine and nothing special per se, the nights that we eat dinner together are always a special part of my day.
I would have to say that the literature world agrees with me for the most part in this respect; that eating meals as a family often helps to strengthen relationships, provide a positive routine for people each day, and offers insight into the lives of characters and their relationships with others. By examining a few families at dinnertime, family dynamics become clearer, and sometimes insight is gained about a particular character (and if none of this is discovered in a passage, it’s always fun to read what your favorite characters eat, anyway)!
I’ll start with the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The main character Melinda is struggling through her freshman year of high school for more than one reason. I’d propose that one reason she struggles is because of her family life at home; she feels as though no one is there for her to talk to or confide in. Her mother is stressed out and constantly busy at work, and her father is stuck in a similar situation. Melinda describes her typical dinner situation by saying “I order my dinner at 3:10 and eat it on the white couch….I chow and watch TV until I hear Dad’s Jeep in the driveway-then bolt upstairs” (15). Melinda’s dad then heats up the pizza, pours himself an alcoholic beverage, and sits down to watch TV and eat dinner alone. The entire family struggles as a result of the lack of connectedness and support they experience with the people around them who they are supposed to love and trust the most. In this situation, it is easy to see why Melinda battles for so long with the negative events she experienced the previous summer because there is no opportunity for her to approach her parents about what she is feeling.
A scene in the William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying is also very telling in terms of social and familial dynamics during the time period. For starters, the father of the household instructs his daughter Dewey Dell to “Git up now, and put supper on” immediately after his wife dies (Faulkner). He offers no time for his daughter to grieve over her mother, instead viewing dinner as a practical means for the family to “keep [their] strength up” since they have to travel a long way to bury the mother (Faulkner). This command directed at his daughter signifies the power of men during this time period: as a father figure, Anse has the authority to tell his daughter what to do and she in turn is forced to comply. Because she is female, she is expected to make dinner. Additionally, Anse expects his entire family to show up to supper and sit at the table (with the exception of Dewey Dell because she is female) and makes sure that they all eat. When Dewey Dell only makes turnip greens and slices bread for supper, there is audible dissatisfaction that the meal is not hearty enough to sustain them. This shows that the family views food strictly as sustenance and nutrition and not necessarily for pleasure. This could be because of their economic situation (a poor one) or their occupation as farmers, meaning that they labor long and hard in the fields and rely on proper nutrition. This example of family dining lends itself to readers asking questions of themselves regarding motives behind food choices. Do you eat food because of its nutritious properties or for taste or flavor alone? Or both? Is there someone in your family that you expect to cook the meals? Why is that? Does your lifestyle directly affect what you eat (ex. if you are a runner, you eat nutritious foods to fuel your exercise)?
A story that shows not only how meals can be important as far as sustenance goes, but also how it can be a source of unlikely, yet beneficial relationships is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Scholars have commented and debated the nature of Huck and Jim’s friendship since the publication of the novel, but no one has denied that the relationship (although highly unlikely given the time period and circumstances) existed. As soon as Huck runs away from his father, he finds himself on an island where he meets Jim and realizes that the two of them could mutually assist each other in escaping from the lives that exist for them in the town they are from. Their partnership begins to be forged symbolically through their preparation and consumption of breakfast with one another. Huck catches a large cat-fish and then Jim cleans and fries the fish. The two then “lolled on the grass and eat it smoking hot…then when [they] had got pretty well stuffed, [they] laid off and lazied” (Twain). This easygoing companionship and eagerness to assist one another foreshadows their journey down the river together and shows how significant meals can be in developing familial-type relationships of mutual respect, helpfulness, and compassion.
There are countless other examples of family dynamics that can be found throughout any type of literature. These three examples simply point to a small range of possibilities that exist within the realm of familial dynamics as influenced by social, historical, cultural, and personal factors. Most important to glean from these examples are the overwhelming and evident examples of why family dinners are often a positive addition to a daily routine, and how the absence of such dinners can either reflect or lead to isolation.
I am happy to say that my dinners at home and school are filled with “family”. At home I eat with my real family, and at school I eat with the family I’ve made for myself; a group of friends who understand me and my life and are willing to take time out of their days to listen to my triumphs and struggles each day, and me to theirs. I urge you to take time this week to enjoy a great meal with family (whoever that may be in your life). If you’re nervous about what to serve for dinner, I am going to post a quick and easy meal plan in a post tomorrow that is friendly toward any diet! Here’s a sneak peek: