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The Dinner Table: Resetting Our Traditions

March 26, 2021 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

The Dinner Table: Resetting Our Traditions

Among the activities we’ve come to miss most during the year of the pandemic has been gathering around the dinner table with friends and family.

If we have a spouse or partner, which Barbara does, she has someone with whom she can converse, share the meal and make eye contact. She certainly doesn’t take this for granted. But early on during the pandemic, meal after meal became so routine that they broke their long-standing habit of not eating in front of the TV. They became adept at juggling plates on their laps while watching the latest series they had become addicted to, from Seaside Hotel to West Wing and recently Homeland and Schitt’s Creek. Only for major holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and now Passover did they use Barbara’s good china, cloth napkins and sit at a table and just talk. 

Margaret, like millions of singles, has eaten most of her COVID-19 meals alone, reading a book, turning on the TV to listen to news or sometimes talking with a friend in between bites. Occasionally, she’s dined with her two sisters, brother-in-law, older son and a niece. 

In each case, we’ve longed for more noise and conversation, reviews of the food we and others prepared, talk of subjects other than who got their vaccine, which one, if they had a negative reaction and what we plan to do first when we feel safe venturing out among more people and maybe getting on public transportation or airplanes! 

The stark contrast between meals now and those even just a year ago and further back brought back a flood of memories about what dinner time was like with our nuclear family growing up, how it changed when we became young marrieds and hosted dinner parties, had children and how it changed yet again once we were single.

And maybe that’s part of its charm and enduring importance of dinner time. We adapt it to our lives and needs, just as we change the foods we consume, which are really secondary to why we come to the table.   

Barbara associates spirited discussions with dinner time from childhood into her adulthood. Her meals growing up were always at 6 p.m., conversations revolved mostly around school topics when younger and gradually politics as she got more involved in current events. At one point, they also involved learning at least one new vocabulary word each night.

The foods served represented a balanced diet typical for the era and pairings of perhaps meatloaf and baked potatoes or salmon croquettes and macaroni and cheese. Salads always consisted of iceberg lettuce and bottled dressings. Friday evenings featured mostly chicken in some iteration of roasted with a bread stuffing, cacciatore (canned tomato sauce), with peaches (yuck!) or barbecued outdoors when the weather warmed.

She remembers also her parents regularly hosting small dinner parties for 10 or 12 and mixing up who was invited rather than having couples from a set group, so the evenings were always livelier, and people met. Barbara was always called upon to pass the hors d’oeuvres, which gave her a first stab at eavesdropping into what a group of adults talked about. She remembers her mother knowing that in warm weather those who golfed on weekends would be the first to leave to get their sleep before teeing off in the early morning. 

Once married and a hostess herself, Barbara borrowed the idea of bringing friends together who might enjoy meeting one another. She loved spending all day preparing the menu, much more complex than her mother’s meals as home cooking became more complicated, thanks to the influence of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Marcella Hazan’s Italian recipes and Craig Claiborne’s writing for The New York Times newspaper. 

In raising two daughters, Barbara followed her mother’s example by establishing the tradition of sitting down to dinner each night as a family, never serving prepared foods or rarely and never having a TV on. Dinner time was meant to catch up and converse. After her separation and divorce, her younger daughter, who was still at home before college, suggested that because they talked so much why not watch TV together and bond over her favorite weeknight shows of Seventh Heaven, Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek and Friends. They had a ball. 

And once that daughter went off to college, Barbara continued eating in her family room in front of the TV, which kept her company. Voices can do that. As a single in her next home, she often found herself standing at the kitchen counter in front of the room’s small TV and eating hurriedly. Sitting in the home’s large dining room alone offered no pleasure and reinforced her aloneness. 

But she was thrilled to host dinner parties for a book club she joined, a latke dinner party and holiday gift exchange with female friends she orchestrated, and for friends and family who visited and stayed over regularly. Mealtime became much more about having good conversation and friendship than the food.

When Margaret was growing up, her father was always late coming home from work because of the business he was building. The family of six ate together in the kitchen at a large round table. She doesn’t remember if everyone talked much but she recalls her mother always correcting her and her siblings’ table manners. “Sit up straight. Take your elbows off the table. Chew with your mouth closed” were the regular comments. Margaret found it like being in a military school for manners. After dinner, everyone had to clean the kitchen her mother would inspect. She was tough. There was rarely TV after dinner since the only TVs were in a den and her parents’ bedroom. TV was permitted on weekends with everyone gathering to watch either old movies or the Ed Sullivan show. 

When she was older and a junior in high school, the family moved to a much bigger house and ate together as a family as much as possible. Then conversation centered mostly on politics. Most nights they ate in the breakfast room, sporadically in her parents’ sitting room where on Sundays they’d eat fried chicken on tables in front of their TV, and on special occasions like Thanksgiving in the dining room. They also ate out, which was good for her father’s business as a liquor wholesaler. Restaurants were happy to see him and his family.

After Margaret and her husband had children, they ate together as much as possible in the kitchen. They talked, laughed and discussed the day’s events. If music weren’t playing—anything from pop to jazz to classical, they had a TV in the kitchen which was sometimes turned on if Margaret’s husband wanted to watch the news or a baseball or football game. As for dinner parties, her husband often grilled and guests ate casually around their backyard swimming pool.

Whatever your routine, we suggest mixing it up, which surely will help get through the coming weeks and months until the pandemic eases and weather improves: 

  • Plan one special meal at least once a week. Come up with a theme of a different cuisine from a country you’d love to visit as Barbara’s one daughter does. For ideas, look at blogs, the site kitchenquarantine, and in cookbooks, food magazines and the food/dining sections of newspapers. The New York Times’ Sunday “Home” section offers fast, easy recipes.
  • Make a new recipe you’ve never tried or one for an upcoming holiday. Barbara planned in early February to find a good recipe for hamantaschen for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which jams, prunes or poppyseeds are wrapped in a “three-cornered hat” of dough. And she plans to try something new for Passover, which begins tomorrow night.
  • Change the background noise. If you’ve been watching in front of the TV, sit down, enjoy your food and the calm. Maybe, turn on a favorite opera or musical track from a show. Barbara recently played numerous Tony Bennett duets with Lady Gaga and others after learning of Bennett's Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
  • Change the place setting. Use different dishes, placemats, glassware and cloth napkins that you haven’t used in ages. You don’t have to use the best stuff, which might require hand washing or being super careful. If you always eat at a kitchen island or table, treat yourself and use your dining room.
  • Bring in food and support a local restaurant. A friend of Barbara’s recently was excited about their dinner of fresh grilled tuna and soba noodles, which they had enough of for two nights. Margaret brought in pizza from a local pizza place and inspired Barbara to do the same the next night. And if you’re not comfortable yet doing so, buy a gift certificate from the restaurant for a future time.
  • Try a new cocktail or wine. Cocktails always add a specialness to any meal as does trying a new wine or after-dinner liquor.  
  • Add a centerpiece to make your table look company nice. Try fresh flowers or a fresh plant. Or place a big colorful bowl with oranges or apples and light some pretty candles. Dim your other lights.
  • Dress up. Get out of your PJs or sweats or whatever you’ve been living in and dress nicely, comb your hair, put on lipstick or if you’re a guy shave. Pretend you’re going to a lovely white-tablecloth restaurant with friends. In other words, get out of the sloppy mode, which has been so easy during work-at-home pandemic.
  • Invite a friend or friends. If you’re feeling lonely or want new conversation, maybe ask a friend or family member to join you and eat and Zoom or Facetime together. You might have a question ready to pose as Barbara’s older grandson likes to do. Who’s your favorite superhero? What superpower would you like to have?
  • Plan your first meals out. Where will you go? What will you eat? How about your first dinner party and its menu? Planning is good fun and leads to optimism and hope. Barbara hopes to use the gift certificate for her favorite local French bistro which she bought months ago to be supportive. She and her beau love to sit at its counter and eat, chat with the bartender and diners on either side. While she doesn’t plan to eat indoors, she will consider eating outdoors on its sidewalk when weather warms and she sees coronavirus numbers go down in her area. She also hopes to eat with Margaret at one of her favorite New York City restaurants. They’ve already discussed the place’s fabulous tuna burger and fries. And Margaret is looking forward to her daughter visiting from Los Angeles and eating with other family members indoors in different homes and outdoors, too. Such plans greatly lift our spirits even more than the idea of others cooking for us does.
  • Plan your meals in. We feel that since we’ve been vaccinated with both shots, we’re ready to dip our toes into the tiniest get-togethers with friends inside our homes or outside on a building terrace or our home’s deck and see how we all feel. We plan to do so only with those who’ve been vaccinated and will wear masks when not eating, but know that others have other benchmarks for safely. Barbara recently bought a smokeless fire pit that she plans to use for making hot dogs and s’mores after a friend told her of the joy this has added to her and her husband’s dining life.
  • Binge and dine. In the meantime, we both plan to enjoy some more great movies with dinner party scenes, from loud and boisterous Wedding Crashers to the mystery Clue, period pieces with fancy tables of Gosford Park, Titanic and Downton Abby to name just a few. 

Please share with us anything about your dining table and make a toast to happy healthy eating with friends and family. 

Next week: A look at our metaphorical seats at the table.

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1 comment

  • Bruce M

    Mar 26, 2021

    Great post. So familiar and comforting. We had 4 siblings and Dad wanted us to do the clean up. There was squabbling, so I did a little spreadsheet / graph paper with who did which after-dinner duty. Worked great. Then in 10th grade I went away to boarding school. System fell apart and Mother went back to clean up which she disliked less than settling the arguments among the 3 remaining siblings.


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