I’m ten years old and it’s Mary’s night to cook. She’s made Mexican, which is cause for celebration among the kid contingent: burritos officially rule. Plus my sisters and I have a plan for tonight. We’re going to try to escape to watch Nickelodeon while we eat, instead of sitting at the table with the adults. It will be easy, we figure. We’ll just quietly slip away, plates in hand – casual. And then we’ll get to have our two favourite things at once: food and mindless entertainment, and it will be nothing short of bliss.
Our plan fails massively, which we should have seen coming. We’ve eaten dinner at the huge round table every night since we were tiny babies – with the exception of Fridays, which are Out to Dinner Nights. We should have known better, we tell ourselves after we’ve had the inevitable lecture from the parents: dinner is eaten at the table, together, that’s the rule. It’s one of our only rules in life; as far as restrictions go; we’re a pretty lucky bunch. Still, at the table, we’re miffed. We sulk through our burritos. We tune out the adults as they talk about their boring adult stuff: politics, politics, politics; news, news, news; people we don’t know who are old, people we don’t know who are old, people we don’t know who are old. As a ten-year-old, these obligatory dinners were often brutal. As an adult, I see that they were the core of my childhood, our community and my life.
In 1979 my parents bought ten acres of land just south of Santa Cruz, California, with seven other people. The other people part was mostly out of necessity; in those days no one could afford to buy land on their own. Plus communes were a thing, an option people still considered; the idea of living with others had not been dragged through the proverbial mud due to the infamous failings of so many cultish communes of the sixties and seventies. My parents and their cohorts built houses from salvaged materials:rafters bought cheap from a burned-down bus depot, the bones of old barns, sheets of glass windows from defunct commercial greenhouses. They first constructed the ‘Big House’: open floor-plan, industrial kitchen, skylights, the giant dinner table. Then each family built their smaller house, connected to the others by way of crude brick paths running through rambling gardens.
The ‘commune’ (as it was dubbed many years later by my high-school boyfriend) did not have any religious pretence or founding ideology. Its members were not polygamous; they were not vegans; the community did not sustain itself from the food in its own garden. There were no goddess gatherings. There were no scary cult leaders, or leaders at all. There weren’t even any meetings, at least in the proper sense. Instead, there was dinner.
My parents and their cohorts built houses from salvaged materials: rafters bought cheap from a burned-down bus depot, the bones of old barns.
Dinner at the commune is at seven o’clock every night. Each of the members – there are six that still live there – has his or her ‘night to cook’. On your night to cook you plan, shop for, cook and clean up the meal. Everyone else shows up at seven, and you all eat together around the big round table; there are always candles and there is always wine. There is also conversation (from banal to big issue), argument (from political to practical), decision making (whether or not to cut down the pine tree in the drive way, where to build a fence) and drama (occasionally someone will get up from their seat and storm down the path to their own house; they’ll always show up the next evening). Dinner is the one consistent commitment the commune members have made to each other. My mum argues that without their nightly dinners, the place would fall apart.
Now, in my adult life, dinner holds me together. If I don’t have a proper dinner, I feel that the day is incomplete, and I have trouble sleeping. This, again, has little to do with being hungry. It has to do with the only ideology that I grew up with: the ideology of dinner. Dinner means a designated space and time for a shared experience that happens to revolve around the act of consuming calories. Dinner means respite from work, the marker of the end of a day. Dinner means garlic smell and wine lips. Dinner means conversation or quiet. Dinner means sharing. Dinner means home.
Since I left the commune when I was eighteen, I have tried to institute a dinner rule wherever I’ve gone. I wrangled college roommates into making tacos together and sharing grocery expenses. I made kale for my chain-smoking roommate when I first moved to New York; she didn’t touch the stuff, but she sat with me while I ate it, smoking, of course. I have a firm mutual assumption in place with my soon-to-be-husband: we eat dinner together. And if for any reason we can’t, we let the other know well in advance. He knows that if I’m left without a dinner partner at the last minute, it isn’t pretty.
Because here’s the thing. I believe in dinner. I believe in sustenance, and communing around sustenance. I believe in feeding people and being fed. I believe in meeting over dinner like some people believe in going to church: a gesture towards community and togetherness, an act of faith.
Studies show that children who eat dinners every night with their families do better in school, have less chance of getting into trouble, become more successful in the long term. This is probably less about the food they’re being fed (though that is definitely a part of it) than the sense of stability that comes with family routine.
Often, when someone throws a party at their house, they deck out their living room or dining room or parlour, thinking it will be the space where the guests will gather and mill. Inevitably, guest by guest, the party migrates to the kitchen. This is more about the desire to help the hostess, or to spend time with her, than checking on the food in preparation – either that or the warmth and smell that drifts from there is beaconing you like a hearth.
Michael Pollan, in his new book and television series Cooked, speaks of what he calls the ‘cooking paradox’: the fact that we cook for ourselves and each other much less than we used to, but we are more interested in cooking than ever – we watch countless mindless television shows about it. He thinks the reason we watch and obsess over the shows is less about the food (though that is certainly a factor) and more about the memories they evoke of being cooked for by a mother or grandmother or friend or spouse, which he argues is one of the most comforting and generous acts that there is.
My mother is a radio producer. One of her most successful series was Hidden Kitchens, which tells off-the-beaten-path stories involving food – communities of taxi drivers who gather at pop-up food trucks after their night shifts; prisoners who develop delicious recipes using only meagre ingredients and basic tools; the wild, unexpected history of Rice-A-Roni. Eventually, the radio series became a book. Bookshops always file it in the cookbooks section. But my mum always moves it when she goes to her local bookshop. ‘The stories aren’t even about food!’, she always says. ‘The stories are about people!’
It’s never really about the food, not really. The food is essential, yes. Everyone needs to eat. If you are a fourth grader with an attitude problem and a love for bad television, you need to eat. If you’re a middle-aged stockbroker, you need to eat. If you’re rich or poor or in-between, you need to eat. But the food is also an excuse. Baking the pie is an excuse to bring it to the neighbour. The pop-up food cart is an excuse to turn a parking lot into a late-night pow wow. Brunch is an excuse to spend the whole day with someone (no one goes home after brunch). The dinners at the commune were an excuse to convene, to solve problems and, most importantly, to be together.
The dinners at the commune were an excuse to convene, to solve problems and, most importantly, to be together.
When people congregate around food, they are essentially keeping each other alive – in all the ways. To eat together regularly is to affirm each other’s aliveness over and over again, quite literally to sustain each other. I believe we ritualize food in order to hold on to that transcendence, to keep it close. When I have friends over to my tiny Brooklyn apartment for dinner, I am also telling them that I love them.
My sisters and I kicked each other under the dinner table while we waited to be excused. After dinner, wired from the food, we’ll hit the living room hard: cartwheels on the carpet, pillow forts, headstands on the orange couch that’s been here since the seventies. But before that, we’ll have to finish our plates (there are starving children in Africa) and drink all our milk (we’ll thank our parents for the calcium later). We’ll also have to thank whoever made dinner for us, and then we’ll have to clear our plates. We itch for the television and the warm carpet, eager to climb down off the too-big-for-us dining-table chairs. When we are finally given the go-ahead we say, in unison, THANK YOU, MARY!!! And run off into the realm of children: that safe, elated space we’ll come to realize later was particular to after dinner, the feeling that was brought into being by that big round table.