When I tell people I study the American meal, they often respond with an immediate confession about not observing family dinners in their household as much as they'd like to or feel they should. These confessions don't surprise me, as the American dinner has been in a state of decline for several decades now, and people are not eating together as much as they used to. But the readiness with which people volunteer these confessions--unsolicited--does. Parents seem to want to share this aspect of their family life, as if a confession might somehow assuage their guilt. But why such guilt?
I suspect that many Americans genuinely regret lost opportunities for time spent with family members, especially during their children's formative years. Parents worry about compromising their children's nutrition (when we eat together, we consume more vegetables, while taking in less sodium and saturated fat). They also fear their children losing out on the social and intellectual benefits of the dinner table (family dinner has been associated with a wider vocabulary, higher grades, and lower tendencies toward alcohol and drug abuse). But I have come to believe that there is a much larger factor at play in the guilt we carry about missing family dinner: the past.
Dinner has not always been a special family meal. In the pre-industrial era, it was largely about refueling the body for arduous physical work--and if people came together to eat, this was for practical purposes: they gathered when the food was ready and when it was hot. Talking may have taken place at the dinner board, but since family members likely worked cooperatively on a farm or in a family business, catching up was not so important. Manners were minimal, and eating, which often relied on minimal utensils or even fingers, could be surprisingly rustic.
With the Industrial Revolution, dinner became special. Families separated during the day, with men, women, and children headed to different daytime destinations (office, shops, school, home), so coming together around a hot meal--now in the evening instead of the afternoon to accommodate new work schedules--was a primary way for parents and children to reconnect during the week. Dinnertime also became an important school of manners: the middle class was emerging, and they needed a way to distinguish themselves from the less socially mobile, so they emphasized etiquette.
Fast forward to the twentieth century when enduring images such as Normal Rockwell's iconic Saturday Evening Post Thanksgiving dinner illustration "Freedom From Want" held up a powerful, if mythic, wartime ideal that redefined dinner not only as a family affair but as a patriotic one as well. Part of what it meant to be American was to have a "chicken in every pot" (Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign promise), and immigrants chased the American dream across the ocean for this reason among others--to eat well. In the 1950s with the wars and Depression behind them, Americans could once again enjoy prosperity, and they embraced suburban life and its many domestic pleasures--including eating together as a family in the evening à la "Leave It To Beaver."
No wonder we feel guilty when we fail to come together in the evening, sit around a table, and enjoy a hot-from-the-oven, homemade meal! Over the past 150 years or so, dinner has accumulated many meanings beyond food: it has become about how we relate to our families, our society, and our nation. Perhaps it's time to revisit the script we've inherited and its weighted norms. After all, these norms come to us largely by way of cardigan-donning actors on mid-twentieth century TV sets and were established by nineteenth-century wearers of corsets who considered the word "stomach" a vulgarity when uttered at the dinner table. Or perhaps we simply need to inaugurate a new conversation.
More than ever before, people are talking about food. Many would say that in the past decade we've become downright obsessed. We read food writing, watch cooking shows, hold culinary competitions, study ingredient labels, and consider the benefits of organic and local as well as the dangers of pesticides and GMOs. But we don't seem to be talking much about the family meal--what it is, how it adds value to our lives and our society, and why it's so hard for so many of us to keep up.
Why have people been so quick to spill their confessions about not observing family dinner when I mention that I study meals? Because they care about the family meal, and they want to find ways to make it work--and because they want to be part of a larger conversation about the meal. Perhaps by expanding the dialogue about food in our society to address the challenges families face when it comes to eating together, we can renew, perhaps even reinvent, what has become a valuable American tradition--and begin to chart a course for the meal's future along the way.
Abigail Carroll is the author of "Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal" [Basic Books, $27.99].