If you’re a certain age, sitting around the dinner table used to be a nightly affair. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1970s, and we had a meat, potato and veggie every night of the week. That wasn’t unusual at the time, although my mom was among the minority of mothers who also had a full-time job.
We were a chatty family, so the conversation was lively. With no smartphones and only the newspaper and nightly TV news to inform our day, dinner was the time we caught up with each other. We talked about our days and what was happening in the news, and Dad might tell a joke he’d heard at work, sometimes too ribald for me to understand.
Those dinners around the table have been on my mind lately. Like most Americans, I’m cooking at home a lot more. There’s even a new term for it: “quarantine cooking.” Shoppers are grabbing up pasta, beans, rice and eggs, while flour and yeast are scarce as baking makes a comeback—photos of cookies and loaves of fresh bread are collecting “likes” on social media faster than cat memes.
Sit-down dinners are a logical extension of quarantine cooking. We’re cooped up in the house most of the day, trying to entertain and distract ourselves, perhaps even get a little work accomplished. The last thing we need is to stare vacantly at our smartphones during dinner or—worse—gather around the TV to watch the news.
I’m isolating with my 20-year-old son, a college student and budding computer wiz, and he insists on a leisurely dinner at the table, jazz playing in the background. Like me, he grew up with nightly gatherings around the meal. It was important for me to pass down that tradition. When the kids were growing up, I was the nightly chef. I didn’t make everything from scratch, that’s for sure, but it was healthy and I was lucky the kids would eat asparagus, broccoli and fruit.
In those days, I would sip a glass of wine at the table as we all slowed down our lives and talked. I wanted to hear about their day, even if was just my preteen daughter complaining about a nasty clique of girls at school or my young son changing his mind about his Halloween costume for the third time that week. As the kids got older they rebelled, and it was harder to pull off dinner around the table every night.
That experience is not different from many families in America. We’ve become accustomed to distraction in favor of interaction while we eat, but the door is open for change. My son, I think, is nostalgic for those nights around the table, which seem so long ago to him. I guess I am, too.
Food is comfort, that’s no revelation, but a meal at the table with family runs deeper than that. There is strength in being together, in the stew of personalities and conversation, and in the tradition of good food and wine.
Americans reconnecting to home cooking could be one of the few benefits of this pandemic. That, and the renaissance of sit-down dinners. That’s a lesson we should all take away from this crisis.