Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 14: FAMILIES, DINNER AND THE FAMILY DINNER

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So it has come to this: an attempt to regulate dinner by means of a proclamation from U.S. President Barack Obama that the fourth Monday in September be known as Family Day. Nothing wrong with that, although former Alberta Premier Don Getty beat him by a few years — 19 in fact — when Getty proclaimed Family Day for the third Monday in February.

When Alberta’s brand-new holiday was first observed in 1990, nothing was mentioned about families eating dinner together. The idea of actually having a holiday in February, breaking that long, cold and unrelenting slog from New Year’s to Victoria Day, meant people didn’t care what it was called, as long as it was there. Even the criticism leveled at the premier for what some believed to be the blatant abuse of his office didn’t have much staying power. (The rumour was that Getty announced the holiday designed for family togetherness in response to his own son being charged with drug possession which the premier reportedly said was a result of the family not spending enough time together.)

But now, Family Day has been embraced by all of the do-gooders, all those Pecksniffian busybodies smugly asserting all the problems faced by modern families can be resolved if we just eat dinner together.

How pathetic have our lives become that government-mandated mealtime is seen as necessary?

It’s not that there isn’t solid research into family life and the fallout from modern eating habits. Excuses notwithstanding, obesity would be less of a problem if fast food became a treat and not a lifestyle. Joseph Califano, chair of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and a former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare has put it bluntly: “If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in our nation’s substance abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week.”

Everyone assume that “substance abuse” means drugs. I contend it also means a much more powerful substance than illegal drugs — food and its abuse. When Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma wrote “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” he put in seven simple words the secret of weight loss and health. No “diet” plan. No “pro-biotic” drinks. No pills, no protein powders, no process. Just seven simple words.

I laugh whenever I announce I am the undisputed winner of the Ford Family Knife and Fork Race. I remember my father, looking up from his post-dinner cup of tea and saying to my mother: “Hang on to your saucer, Peggy, she’s clearing the table.”

“She” was me. Their oldest child. The one who could polish off a complete dinner, ask for seconds, (please and thank-you mandatory) and still manage to clear the table of everything before Dad had put down his fork. Guess what? My father was skinny, although one could suppose that a stint in a prisoner-of-war camp kept him thin for life. Maybe it was genetics. Maybe it was the pouch of Buckingham cigarettes he smoked a day. Whatever, the fat gene missed him.

But maybe, just maybe, it was because Dad never gobbled his food. Maybe that stint as a POW when a potato was worth its weight in cigarettes or gold or even a man’s wedding ring (Dad’s went for a loaf of bread) gave men like him an appreciation of bounty and the ease with which dinners appeared each night after work.

At the same time that dinner appeared, so did the Ford children. Like their parents before them, Bob and Peggy Ford ate dinner together with their children. Not occasionally. Not in between hobbies and classes and bridge games. But every night.

I am never one to underestimate the zeal with which well-meaning people will try to organize their neighbours and their communities. And backed up with a wealth of statistics and studies that put family mealtime on a par with regular dental checkups and mandatory schooling, the movement from the United States to Canada and elsewhere cannot be long in coming.

But here’s the problem: The families who need to be regulated to eat together are either too busy to do so or too uncaring to bother and aren’t listening to all the studies and official pronouncements.

I’m still trying to reconcile today’s busy families with the one in which I grew up.

The first time I met a kid who was not required — on pain of death — to be home for dinner I thought it was nothing short of strange. Didn’t every family eat dinner together at 6 p.m.? Didn’t every family have a rule the only person permitted to answer the telephone if it rang during dinner was Dad?

Our friends quickly discovered in order to avoid a stern talking-to, not to phone between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. (The real secret was that our father could scare the crap out of any kid with his voice, but he was a pussycat on the inside. Mother, though, was another matter.)

What kind of families did not sit down to eat together and why was this kid calling when he should be eating dinner with his parents?

Such were the understood rules of our house when I was growing up. Much has changed since the 1950s.

In her illuminating look at dinner and dining and all of the elaborate manners that accompany mealtime, Margaret Visser in The Rituals of Dinner writes: “Where families spend less and less time together, removing dinner-time talk may well be a serious deprivation: it takes away what was scarce in the first place.”

The diner table is where families share their day and their stories. The food was always secondary to the ritual of dinner. (Luckily so. Mother never was a great cook.) Even today, in the world of food as high art, the meal is only the supporting role.

Not to eat dinner with your family, especially as a child, is to be deprived of all those boring lessons about which fork to use and how to eat in polite company. They were excruciating to the child; invaluable to the adult.

Mother may have been an unimaginative and unwilling cook, but none of us ever went hungry. And none of us ever complained about the quality or the quantity of the meals. What did we know about exotic food? Indeed, what did we know about spices beyond salt and pepper? Mustard would appear rarely; ketchup, never.

I was in university before I ever met pizza. Not until my parents moved from Edmonton to Red Deer, after my first year at the University of Alberta, did I ever meet garlic, cabbage rolls, poppy seed cake or other “ethnic” delicacies. (This move, my father being transferred, meant for the rest of my life I could joke about never leaving home — home left me.)

I had to find a place to live for the next couple of years and after one year in a Catholic girls’ residence, overseen by a group of Ursuline nuns, nine of us found a house to rent close to the campus. Thanks to living with an ethnically diverse set of young women, I was introduced to a world of food I didn’t know existed. When Shirli’s Hungarian mother came up from Lethbridge and proceeded to take over the kitchen for a day, I had no idea any room could smell so appealing. To this day, the aroma of warm dough rising sends me into a reverie.

NEXT: The expensive cost of cheap food

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Written by Catherine Ford

October 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. After I read the line:

    “And none of us ever complained about the quality or the quantity of the meals”

    I was reminded of something my boyfriends 82 year old father was known to say to the children many years ago, “hunger is the best spice”.

    Laura

    October 27, 2009 at 2:34 pm

  2. Catherine, you continue to write like an angel even if you seem obsessed by food and weight.

    Lorenzo

    November 1, 2009 at 10:38 am


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