by John Donohue
In my childhood home, there was a square yellow clock on the wall of the kitchen, where we ate our meals, and I will never forget its face. In particular, I will always remember its thick and thin black hands pointing to 7:20. That was the time in the morning that I had to leave for the school bus, and, for some reason, it always seemed that exactly twelve-hours later, I was sitting at the same table, holding the same fork, staring at the same hands on the same clock.
I don’t remember much of what was said at those meals. At the start of the day, everyone wielded the broad pages of the New York Times like shields. In the evening there were no newspapers to hide behind, but what we discussed eludes me. There were moments of laughter—my father, who was unaware of his blood-sugar issues would be stern at the start of the meal, but could be hilarious by the end, teaching us (without alcohol) the table-banging drinking games he played in college—and there were arguments—over state universities versus private schools.
I do remember the food, which was fresh and healthy, and always prepared by my mother. There was fish on Fridays and we always had a green vegetable—romaine lettuce and not iceberg. Thirty-five years later, I’ve taken on the role of my mother as I do most of the cooking for my own family, and I’ve followed her down the same garden path. I don’t serve fried foods, and make sure there’s a green vegetable with every meal. We have fish every weekend.
But times have changed over the past three decades, and just as it takes two incomes to keep a family afloat, it takes two parents to get the meal on the table. I do most of the behind-the-scenes work, but my wife, who is self-employed and has more flexible hours, does most of the labor when it comes to feeding time. For example, I may spend a Sunday making a three-hour Bolognese that freezes well, but she’ll spend the forty-minutes heating it up, cooking the pasta, plating it, and washing up afterwards. Most nights I don’t get home until after the kids have eaten, though I do try to get home at least one night a week to be at the table with them.
In the end everyone is working more, but I hope we’re also getting more out of it. Eating together as a family is a worthy goal, and the benefits of it are well known, but I have to add one point. As much as the meal is about the food—and my blog Stay at Stove Dad and my book, “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families,” are both about delicious, healthy, and home-cooked food—the meal is also about the family.
The real benefits of a family dinner depend on how the parents talk to the children and how they listen to them. As my co-Blog For Family Dinner contributor Amy Kover, put it so well the other day, “Cooking Does Not a Great Parent Make.” What she says below about moms is equally true for dads:
Personally, I think the hardest part of being a Mom isn’t feeding your kids, but getting to know them as they constantly change and learn about the world.
I’d like to think Jeanne [her mom] taught me this lesson particularly well. Aside from serving as an amazing role model during those difficult days, my mom kept one thing constant: She talked to us about everything. She never tired of hearing about the most recent social drama in my life, nor did she hold back from sharing her unvarnished opinions (which normally annoyed the crap out of me). My mom always knew me.
My advice about family dinner is twofold. Cook great food, but listen more. Whenever we gather as a family, I make a point to pay attention to my wife and children. There are no clocks in our dining room.
John Donohue is the editor of the best-selling anthology “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families,” a collection featuring essays and recipes from Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Mark Kurlansky, Jim Harrison, Stephen King, and many others. He is the father of two young children and he does most of the cooking for his family. He blogs about his time in the kitchen at www.stayatstovedad.com.