The Family Table: The Food That Brings us Together
By, Gwendolyn Taylor Soper
I realize that not every family table in the world is like the family table I grew up with, or the family table my husband and I share with our children and visitors: a table with four legs, several chairs, plates, drinking glasses, forks, spoons and knives. Many family tables around the world are comprised of a mat or cloth on the ground with food set upon it, with people sitting on the ground around the mat as they eat—often using their hands as utensils, or chopsticks. One table isn’t better than the other. They are just different, and they are all beautiful. They bring people together.
Many family tables have one person eating seemingly alone, which isn’t the case if we remember that we are all a part of our human-family. Regardless of the number of people eating a meal at your family table—one, four or fifteen—we are all having family meals together as members of our worldwide, interconnected human-family. We are never alone when we think that way. The family table isn’t just a place to eat, it is a place to feel needed and connected; to belong. I love the quote from the movie Hugo where he, an orphan, says, “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So, I figured if the entire world was one big machine…I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.” We each have a part in the world; no matter how many sit at our table. We all belong . . . especially when we are at the family table. Hopefully we can all find a way to share our mealtimes with other people on occasion.
There is a simple way to feel more connected to our human-family at mealtimes and to peacefully, happily enjoy each meal. It is simply have a moment of silence to think, or to offer a prayer of gratitude, before each meal. There is a lot to be thankful for, like the people who planted the seeds, the people who harvested the fruits, vegetables and spices, the animals, if any, who contributed eggs, dairy or protein to the meal, and the people who sold us the food we are eating. We can give thanks for, or take time to think about, the hands that prepared the meal, even if our own two hands are the only ones that prepared it.
Each one of us is an important part of the human-family eating at the same time as millions of other people around the world. It is important to be mindful of that when we eat. We are eating together, even if we think we are alone. In addition to eating with a grateful heart, the simple act of mindfully noticing the delicious smells of the food, the vibrant colors and textures as we chew, and avoiding electronic devices while we eat, makes us extra, extra nourished; nourished in body, mind and spirit.
I grew up in a home where food was an exciting adventure. “It’s a sign of intelligence to try new food!” Mom often said, so we opened up our mouths for years to prove our I.Q.’s were not sub-par. My mother has always been a bargain hunter to boot, so opening the cupboards to find a snack wasn’t always thrilling for us children, especially when labels for less common childhood fare like ‘mock turtle soup’, or ‘foie gras’ met the eye. They had been purchased for pennies at gourmet food overstock stores—a boon we didn’t seem to appreciate in the Wonder Bread era of the 70’s.
Somehow our mother created a very happy home in spite of the tragic death of our father, Sam, when the five of us children were very young. Mom soldiered on, always keeping the family together at mealtimes, making oatmeal or Cream of Wheat for breakfast every single morning at 6:45, complete with her homemade whole wheat bread (a baking chore my twin sister took over in high school) and halved grapefruits that she painstakingly sectioned so that we couldn’t use the excuse that they were too hard to eat. I always sprinkled mine liberally with sugar. I remember how much I loved the crunchiness of the sugar mixed with the juicy mouthfuls of grapefruit.
I once asked my mother how she managed to raise five little children between the ages of one and eight as a widow and she lovingly said, “Well, you weren’t always clean (we had a huge gully and creek in the backyard to play in), but you were well loved and well fed.” so true. One only has to meet her once to agree that my mother is truly an “angel mother”, as Abraham Lincoln said of his own mother.
A few years after our father’s death, my mother’s parents (known as Nana & Bucka by us grandchildren, and as Gwen and Bill Swinyard by everyone else) moved from Chicago where they had raised my mother, to be near her again while she raised us in Utah. I soon understood why family mealtime, eating together as a family, was so important to my mother. She had grown up that way. Nana and Bucka immediately included all of us grandchildren at their fancy Sunday dinners using their fancy best china around their fancy mahogany table and mahogany chairs that Nana had upholstered with her own fancy needlepoint.
Bucka, with his thick, white hair and eyebrows coarse, black and bushy (which he could twist into shapes like a circus master mustache), manned the grill for those weekend barbeques. I have yet to taste better burgers. They were hand-shaped and patted with minced purple onions and seasonings. Sitting in Nana’s kitchen I also quickly learned where my mother had learned to be such a phenomenal cook. Her mother, my Nana, was equally unparalleled in the kitchen. I would watch her and my mother arrange beautifully presented salads to be set near the dinner plate before we were called à table for elegant North Shore, Chicago-style suppers around her sparkling set table. Nana’s dinners were a fragrant, flavorful vision that could have made Mahatma Ghandi break one of his fasts.
As years passed, and stories were told, I realized that Nana had learned these skills from her mother, Mary Caroline Rigby, literally a Mormon pioneer who “crossed the plains” with her parents, on foot mostly, or in the wagon from the East coast to Utah. Mary Caroline (my great-grandmother) gave birth to 14 children, and fed them all, husband George included. Great-grandma Rigby’s continuous open hospitality led to feeding any number of family, friends, students, or strangers at her enormous family table, including an Indian chief whose tribe lived nearby their Newton, Utah home (c1890).
Very soon after having her sixth baby, not only was she cooking for her present family of eight, but she also had to feed the big construction crew that lived with them. They were constructing a larger home to house their rapidly growing family, a home which would eventually contain George and Mary Caroline’s family of sixteen. Weak from delivering this new baby, yet still having the task to feed her big family and all of the construction crew, Mary Caroline propped herself up with chairs next to the kitchen counter daily, so that she wouldn’t fall over, to bake many pans of biscuits, bread, pie, and the chicken or two she had killed and plucked that day. The workers lived with great-Grandma and Grandpa Rigby and all of their children, because the crew and building supplies had traveled by horse-and-buggy from Logan (a very long commute in those days before cars were invented). After her husband died from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Mary Caroline went off to college with her grown children so that she could cook for them.
My great-grandma passed on her deft hand in the kitchen to my Nana (child number fourteen) and so on to my mother. I always feel my mother’s love when I eat food she has so lovingly prepared. I know others feel it too. I love to imagine the deep love, and can-do attitude, that Nana and great-Grandma Mary Caroline likewise imbued into their family meals so long ago, just like so many other mothers, fathers and teenagers do throughout the world today.
At Christmas-time, watching my mother roll out the dough for light, feathery Swedish Tea Rings for neighbors, or roll out thick Scottish Shortbread Cookie dough—pricking each with a fork before baking and putting in pretty tins—helped me realize how much my mother also loved our neighbors. She spent hours, day after day, in the kitchen making these sweet treats from scratch, which she knew the neighbors loved.
Watching this graceful dance of butter being melted in scalded milk, eggs being cracked into sugar, flour being stirred and measured and dough being beaten at the practiced hand of my mother, I knew cooking was an art I could love. In grade school I began watching Julia Child on PBS and furiously taking notes, and like every normal young child (ha), I asked for cookbooks for Christmas. My husband and I tracked Julia Child down years later in Montecito, California to deliver a saccharin letter I’d written her, only to find she had flown to Washington D.C. that week to be honored as they inducted her kitchen into the Smithsonian. She died two years later.
Nana and Bucka also got old, as people are wont to do. Bucka passed away many years before Nana did and we miss him greatly. We also missed the family meals at their home. The baton was passed to my mother and she began to host everyone at her family table. Even in her late nineties Nana wanted to contribute to the family table at my mother’s, so she would insist on driving over by herself before dinner with groceries, sometimes carrying them in herself if we missed spying her arrival (gasp) from the front window. Mysterious little dents started appearing on her car at that age, but she was determined to be independent and her mind was sharp as a tack. Every Thanksgiving she would make Yams & Apples, and after I grew up and moved away I would make them for the small, growing family of my own.
Once, when Nana was in her nineties, someone called me in February for the recipe for Nana’s Yams & Apples. I was stunned. Not only did someone want to bake it in February when it was only “supposed” to be baked on Thanksgiving by Nana, but I also suddenly realized that Nana wouldn’t be around much longer to bring her Yams & Apples to the family Thanksgiving table. That sudden vision of her mortality hit me like a sledgehammer. I ran to my bedroom and flung myself on the bed and cried so loudly that my children said it sounded like an ambulance was driving by. My mother came over and held me, a thirty-something-year-old, until my sobs turned into hiccuppy-yawns. My mother began spending more time with Nana in the next few years. She began to cook for Nana the way Nana used to cook for her. Nana lived independently until she died at the age of ninety-nine. Oh, how we miss her too.
Today, raising a family of our own has seen my husband and I through a generation where the American family table has threatened to dissolve, and has, for many people. We have even been guilty of allowing other things to get in the way of our own family table when our children became busy teenagers, as well as stocking our cupboards like my mother did, with equally un-American fare for children like lentilles du Puy, rose water or a 1,250 kg tin of Confit de Canard brought home in my suitcase from France, along with a dozen containers of white suspicious stuff (Fleur de Sel salt) in my backpack that got me pulled over by security in three countries.
Many other cultures seem to have clung to their traditions of family mealtimes rich in time and conversation at the table. Happily the American family table seems to be making a comeback. I have to believe the family table can make that comeback—it has to. I truly think that if every person learned to spend quality time, with quality food, and invited friends to their family table (and sang in a choir) it would reform many of our country’s problems. I have tooled away on gimmicky cookbooks throughout the years but, now that I am older, all I want to do is pass on to my children the recipes for the food that has been at our family table, and to tell them the stories or origins behind the people attached to each one.
I hope my children will remember the many times they’ve cooked together, and seen me and my husband—who has become a great cook—and their grandparents, aunts and uncles at work in the kitchen, and our love of lingering and visiting around the table long after the meals are over…trying to keep our family table alive. I hope they will want to do the same for their families and friends.
I hope they remember Waffle Night, and how much fun we’ve had on those Sunday gatherings with Stan at the waffle iron cranking out his sourdough waffles by the dozen for family, neighbors, and the children’s college friends, with batter he spent all day making after grinding his own flour. I hope they will understand why I use Nana’s enamel casserole dish every Thanksgiving to serve her Yams & Apples. And, as much as we joke about this advice I give them in the kitchen (my children even made a video mockumentary about this), I sincerely hope they remember the thing that will always serve them well, no matter what kitchens they end up cooking in after they leave home: knife skills. I’m serious! Most importantly, however, I hope they will have a strong desire to pass along what Nana gave to my mother, and what my mother gave to her children—a love of people and life, which is powerfully communicated when you cook for the ones you love.
G.T.S. June 30, 2009