Don’t Talk. Eat!

I saw yet another article last week imploring parents to eat with their children and talk round the meal table as if that alone was all that was required to turn out well adjusted children and happy families.

They paint a terrible picture of children having their meal early to the sound of the television while their parents grab a ready meal at odd hours as the sole reason for the decline of western civilisation.

I can’t argue that talking to children, talking with children (which is not the same thing), spending time with them (while allowing them and you time alone – it’s a delicate balance) doing things with them and so on is a fine thing and essential to their wellbeing. And a regular and structured family meal may well be essential for the rehabilitation of those poor girls (and some boys) with eating disorders.

I suppose the insistence on the talk round the meal table is a rule easier to recommend than the general wisdom of ‘use your common sense’. You might enjoy a walk in the park, doing a bit of gardening together, or a football match. Despite what the Daily Mail says, on its own it is not a magic ritual, success guaranteed.
“I don’t know why he has turned to crime, we always made him eat breakfast and supper with us.”

I had a school friend from one of those old fashioned, staunch trade union,  Labour voting, East End families, although by this time they were living in Greenleigh (see Family and Kinship in East London Young and Willmott). After our A-levels I went to do my degree and she joined a national bank and worked in their HQ in the City of London.

Next summer I had a holiday job nearby and she would take me as her guest into one of the several Bank canteens.

Those were the days 1973/4/5 when the banks and insurance companies really looked after their employees with subsidised canteens of various types of food. I remember one done up like a new fangled American burger bar, one like a pub (the Double Decker) and one specialising in salads.

“So how do you find the work and your colleagues” I asked after we had eaten our meal.

“Well”, she said “The middle classes are a funny bunch. They talk while they are eating. Look at them all”. And she waved her hand.

“Don’t you remember? We were always told to pipe down and eat up. Look at them chattering away in between mouthfuls”

She was right. I hadn’t noticed it before. To people like our parents who were enjoying a modest post war prosperity based on their very hard work the pit, the abyss, the slope that led to what we now call the chav underclass was not so far away. The way to avoid it was cleanliness, enjoying a drink but not drunkenness, avoiding debt and good manners, especially table manners.

Therefore they were quite strict about not holding a knife like it was a pencil. 

Eating off of the back of the fork, not the curve. “You’re not an American!”

Eating with the mouth closed and not talking with the mouth full.

And then, because our fathers had worked so hard to pay for the food and our mothers had worked so hard to prepare and cook it, our full attention had to be given to what was on our plate. A plate of nourishing tasty food is one of life’s pleasures, especially if you are hungry after a hard days work. Don’t detract from that pleasure by chatter and gossip was the feeling.

There was even an advert of the period for Butoni Real Ravioli, another new fangled innovation, where the catch phrase was “Don’t talk. Eat!”

The concept of the gathering round the meal table was even more difficult if members of the family worked shifts. Dad on early turn, eldest son on nights, Mum giving Dad his meal as soon as he gets in before going off to a part time job for a few hours in the evening while he cooked the younger one’s tea and eldest son’s ‘breakfast’ was not an uncommon pattern.

But so long as we talked and listened and looked out for each other we all grew up fine.

A neighbour gave me some Sunday school magazines imported from an evangelical US church. The parents of the family featured boasted how they set aside a meal every week when all the family had to attend to discuss family business, problems, successes etc. My mother was not impressed.

“It’s a strange woman so unaware of what her family are up to that she has to call a special meeting every week”.

It is given as the most elegant of pleasures to enjoy good food, good wine and good conversation and I wouldn’t knock any of them. Of the three I am most partial to the food and I have noticed that even at my age the ‘don’t talk, eat’ training is so good that I go very quiet and while I’m not rude if someone is actually talking to me I take little part in any conversation going on around me until the course is finished.

So if you ever invite me round to dinner don’t worry if I don’t talk. I am just paying your cooking the biggest compliment I can give it. We can set the world to rights over coffee. Or tea in my case.

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