The whole experience of a “family dinner” is a desperately Rockwellian concept. Around an oblong kitchen table sits a very white, very heteronormative nuclear family, with two parents—a dad for working and a mom for home-making. She, with wholesome good looks, high cheekbones, and a perfectly pressed shift dress. He, with a stiffly combed side-part, sturdy jaw line, and symmetrical dimple in his double Windsor.
Together, naturally, they’ve produced two perfectly square kids—one boy and one girl—made in the image of their father and mother respectively.
Meat and potatoes feature prominently, as does a clear patriarchal order. “How was your day, dear?” the mother asks the father. They talk in the same order they eat—father first—avoiding difficult topics like politics, increasing cost of living, or the suffocating expectations for perfection, normalcy, piety, monogamy, and tithing.
The children sit up straight but fuss mildly over canned vegetables. The television, with only eight available channels, remains off.
At our house, the TV remained off. But in all other ways, I simply can’t relate.
While I experienced the anti-modern privilege of growing up with a stay-at-home mom who cooked dinner for our family, she was anything but the demure, submissive church mouse of yesteryear. Let me introduce you to deb.—her name spelled with lowercase letters and punctuated with a hard stop because she said so. Nuh-uh, you can’t tell her nothing.
deb. was in charge of pretty much everything that happened under that roof, including—or especially—morale. And when it was good, it was very very good.
Five nights a week, deb. put on quite the family dinner. Surprises, spills, sisters spouting spirited debate. Hearty food, hearty laughter, and just plain heart. Heaping helpings.
My dad was still not home from is obnoxious New Jersey commute yet, but we were too hungry to wait. It was neither the first, nor last time that we steamrolled that poor guy.
Take that, patriarchy! Women can be selfish and inconsiderate, too!
deb. sat at the head of the table closest to the food prep side of our kitchen, so she could deploy back and forth if anything needed more sauce, salt, or spices. My sister and I sat across from each other drinking our whole milk while exchanging curious pleasantries and murder threats, both meant with the deepest sincerity and intensity.
Of course I loved my mom’s spaghetti sauce more than any other meal. And I hated peas so much they once made me cry. But the funny thing I learned over the years is that while deb. was an incredible cook, good taste was hardly the point of family dinner at our house.
And it sure wasn’t about keeping up that perfect façade either. While such fantasies may make for a gorgeous painting, that portrait of a family dinner is extraordinarily bland to me, just like the mashed potatoes and woefully overdone steak in that bleak 1950s nightmare of normalcy.
Looking back, there isn’t one perfect family dinner that stands out to me. Instead, it’s a tapestry of indistinct moments that form a pattern. Maybe it isn’t especially beautiful in its print or precision stitching. But upon closer inspection, what’s remarkable about it is the amount of work that went into it.
In the end, that’s what makes it beautiful.