I was on a panel in San Francisco yesterday, talking about the family table. I don’t have to tell you that the American family table is a mess. Nobody has time to cook, except for people, mostly women, who have enough income to create time for shopping and fixing meals. Meanwhile, social scientists keep telling us that the family meal is crucial for everything from preventing childhood obesity to keeping kids from becoming stoners. It's a cause for Mark Bittman; same with Laurie David, with recipe help from Kirstin Uhrenholdt, her personal chef (what was that about having enough income to indulge the family table?).
Of course, doubts about the efficacy of family dinners to prevent teens from lives of struggle are almost as old as studies in favor of closeness around the table. They’re an incredible stress on parents, especially moms. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University finds that “the traditional standards of ‘good mothering’…[demand] that mothers manage an unrealistic balance of their own time, money, energy and focus, all while catering to the desires of their families.” Well, what else is new.
Most of the best-selling authors in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, the period we now think of as the golden age of the American family table, had no family tables to speak of, either because they were gay—“bachelors,” in pre-liberation closet-speak—like James Beard and Craig Claiborne, or businesswomen like Julia Child who didn’t really cook for pleasure. Even Irma Rombauer, author of the original Joy of Cooking, expressed her own joy by making fancy cakes, while her cook was busy getting the schnitzel and boiled carrots on the table. Telling women what to put on the table, and how, by people who didn’t actually have to do it themselves, is a fine old American tradition.
Virginia Heffernan has stirred the pot all over again in an essay for The New York Times Magazine, “What If You Just Hate Making Dinner?” She tries to navigate the narrows of guilt and duty and come out on the other side, on the shore where women without the resources of a Laurie David try to cope with feeding their dependents.
Heffernan’s title reminded me of an earlier argument for freeing American women from the expectations of having to put out in the kitchen, Peg Bracken’s 1960 classic of Phyllis Diller drollery, The I Hate to Cook Book. Even as the 1950s were fading, women were feeling the weight of that unrealistic balance. Bracken’s solution was to take so-called shortcuts, using canned and frozen stuff to produce the illusion of food that’d taken drudgery to get on the plate. Women of today, in the Pollan-Bittman era, certainly can’t reach for the can opener or nuke a frozen meal without guilt.
The solution to all of this might not be the food that goes onto the family table, but the table itself, and extending our understanding of family. In San Francisco, for instance, a middle school has remade its cafeteria into a place with different kinds of tables for kids to eat at in different ways—while playing, or by sharing food on tables that spin, or by doing away with the table altogether and eating while kicked back on couches.
In my neighborhood in Oakland, California, a local organizer created a weekly summer food truck night for families, a kind of modern picnic social where everybody can eat something different, but do it together with other families.
What with communal tables and dining at the bar, American restaurants have morphed into spaces way more connected than they’ve ever been in the modern era, save for lunch counters and soda fountains (and many of those, tragically, had a very narrow understanding of community).
“Let’s move this conversation out of the kitchen,” write the authors of that North Carolina State University report, “and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families.” They suggest a revival of town suppers, or “healthy food trucks,” or more opportunities for sharing food in schools and at the office. I’m likewise convinced that expanding the way we eat—adults and kids together, related by family ties or not, in ways I can’t yet imagine—is the way we’ll reset the American family table.