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The Culture in Kitchens

G. Murphy Donovan (November 2012)


“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” ― Julia Child


There are four clear threats to the modern family and possibly civilization at large; cell phones, video games, the internet, and junk food. We allow the first three because they are cheaper than tutors, private schools, and nannies. Indeed, games and gadgets support a kind of electronic autism where neither parent nor child speaks to each other until the latter is old enough to drive. With junk food the threat is more complicated; a fusion of chemistry and culture. In combination, internet social networks and poor diets seem to be conspiring to produce a generation of pudgy, lazy mutes with short attention spans.

Culture begins and ends on a plate. A proper wake is followed by good food and drink for good reason; a testament to life even without the guest of honor. We eat to live and then we live to eat. From the earliest times, food played a key role in the spiritual and literal growth of families and a larger society. An infant bonds with its mother while nursing; families bond when they share food. We define hospitality with friends by inviting them to break bread – or share a refreshing adult beverage. Alas, eating plays a central role in both civility and civilization.

The day that food sharing moved beyond the immediate family was surely the beginning of a village. The day when a family produced an extra piglet or an extra baguette was surely the beginning of bacon and bakeries. Villages and markets grew to become centers of culture that we now know as places like Athens, Rome, Paris, London, and the Jersey Shore.

The original Greek symposium was a meal at home where the host would provide food, conversation, and the occasional pole dancer. Romans had similar traditions. Even in the Dark Ages, communal societies such as monasteries took their meals together. Monks and nuns might take vows of silence, poverty, and chastity; but, at mealtime they clustered to eat. Silence, sexual tension, and a good multi-grain may be the secrets to introspection and celibacy.

As civilization progressed, we advanced from eating to dining. Indeed, dining is the one activity which ancient guilds and modern clubs have in common. The act of eating became a kind of social cement where the table was used for things beyond nourishment. The ‘groaning board’ thus evolved into a variety of utilitarian instruments including desks, conference tables, and, eventually, surf boards. The places where people sat to eat became and remain the building blocks of family, commerce, and civil society.

Over time, we lost touch with the first, the “family” part of the equation.

A few years back, Hilary Clinton illuminated a typical outlook by sneering: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” Her attempt to defend pant suits at the expense of aprons sent a chilling message to parents everywhere. Yet, that regrettable kitchen metaphor is fairly typical of the dismissive attitudes towards all things domestic – especially cooking for and eating with children. If you ask some careerist “what they make at home” today; the answer is likely to be: “reservations”!

Ironically, most of the alternatives to eating at home are pretty grim: grazing, takeout, or off-ramp tramping.

Grazers are families who eat separately at home where preparation, menu, or timing is irrelevant. Grazers usually feed their kids like pets – on demand, from cans and packages. The takeout crowd tries to maintain some sense of ritual, but the “dining” is usually limited to the time it takes to strip mine bags of fried everything or boxes of rubber pizza. Off-ramp tramps usually motor to the nearest chain restaurant where the menu invariably features some mix of sugar, salt, grease, and carbohydrates.

At fast-food joints, eating is not the main event anyway. For kids, the true lure of junk food emporiums lies with prizes, playgrounds, and creepy clowns – or the ubiquitous gumball machine. The latter is often the healthiest choice on the menu. Private junk food is complemented by the public school trough, where to qualify, parents must admit that they cannot or will not feed their children at home – or take the trouble to pack an edible lunch box.

Maybe it was the social turmoil of the 1960’s or just the bong resin of feminism; nonetheless, many men, and especially women, have come to see family or the kitchen as a kind of bondage. Parenting has been reduced to a proof of plumbing; have a couple of kids, then get on with your life. Dinner and lunch out - was in. An entire junk food industry matured around convenience, the modern euphemism for selfishness. Adult wants became more important than children’s needs.

The scientific causes for obese, dull, or obnoxious kids are surely complicated. Yet, empiricism has yet to rule out environmental factors like poor parenting and bad nutrition. Indeed, each may be two sides of the same cookie. The idea, that bad nutrition and poor socialization are unrelated to much of the pathology that afflicts children today, is an illusion.

Literature on food production and retailing usually has two villains; industry or government. Rachael Carson and more recently, Margaret Visser and Michael Pollan are significant contributors to this popular genre. Unfortunately, critics are seldom candid enough to place responsibility where it belongs; on shoppers and parents. Self-indulgence and limited attention spans have come home to roost - in eating habits and the way we care for children.

There are probably a dozen or more reasons why we believe we can not cook for, or eat with, our families. Yet, none of the excuses are as persuasive as the common sense for dining at home: economy, health, and education.

A single 20lb sack of rice is a testimony to the economics of home cooking. This ten dollar investment provides 220 servings at a nickel a portion. Chicken might be had at the same store for as little as .99 cents a pound. A chicken (8oz portion) and rice dinner, at home, costs .55 cents. If you boil the bird, you have the makings of soup. Throw in a vegetable and fruit for dessert and you have a five course meal for less than a US dollar.

Your cat or dog chow is more expensive! No junk food joint can beat the price of home cooking. Your kitchen has an added value; the kids get to watch, participate, and learn.

Nutrition is the biological bonus of home cooking. The key ingredients in packaged, fast food, or take-out are: calories, fat, salt, sugar and all the chemicals required to prevent the awful from becoming inedible. Conversely, home cooking gives you total control of your family’s diet and nutritional health.

See those beautiful, healthy bodies on magazine covers at the supermarket checkout line? With a little carotene and roughage, that could be your family.

The penultimate virtue of cooking and dining at home is education. Yes, education; not just about food and nutrition, but education about everything else under the sun. Parents are the first and best primary teachers. Some formal schooling might be necessary for a diploma or a credential, but those critical early years are only a job for the deuce that produced.

All learning begins with the process of separating wants from needs – moving from me to thee. With this, all kids need help; that’s why we call them children. True home schooling might be something simple as an hour at the market, an afternoon in the garden, and a meal together, once or twice a day.

By the time kids reach their teens, all that parents have left is influence once or twice removed. If those early opportunities are missed, we waste our lives and damage theirs. Kitchen and dinner tables are the earliest and best school desks to educate and socialize children. If we’re too busy for this, we have to ask ourselves; what’s more important? If parents have no answers, those ‘at risk’ monsters should not be a surprise. ‘At risk’ kids are surely the sons and daughters of clueless and neglect.

Every parent assumes that a child might learn to behave from good example, but few consider that kids are just as likely to be influenced by poor role models – at home.

Parallel epidemics of electronic autism, childhood obesity, hyperactivity, and attention deficit disorders might not be entirely coincidental or unrelated. Sometimes the most obvious solution hides in plain sight. How hard is it to say: “Turn the damn thing off, eat your chicken soup, and sit there; talk or listen until you’re excused?” If the food is good and the table manners are crystal clear, family dinning is a nourishing ritual for body and soul.

The process of education, as Socrates noted over two millennia ago, is simply a dialogue; one or more civil people exchanging embarrassing questions. Ideas are thought to be contagious in a congenial setting; a place like the dinner table, where the participants are fed well and therefore well bred.

Yes, Maggie, much does depend on dinner. Alas, the kitchen still might be the most expensive, yet least used, room in any house or flat. Lest we forget, the kitchen is the tiled room – the one with a stove, without a commode.

The author’s first paying job as a teen was in a Vermont camp kitchen. Since then he has had long affiliation with pots, pans, and kids who lick them. G. Murphy Donovan usually writes about politics and national security.

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