Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Family Meals: Rituals and Traditions

When I was growing up, my mother always prepared a big meal for a  one-o'clock Sunday dinner — a roast of some sort, usually beef, less often pork or lamb. As a treat for my British-born father, the roast beef would occasionally be accompanied by Yorkshire pudding. There would always be at least two different kinds of vegetables, as well as potatoes that had been added to the roast pan and were served brown and crispy on the outside. We could also expect a dessert of pie or trifle. Tarts and cake were reserved for our evening tea. My mother would have spent all Saturday afternoon baking, while she listened to the radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera Company from New York.

The only downside to that fabulous meal would be the scene of devastation in the kitchen, the mountain of dirty dishes that awaited my teen-aged sister and me. The Yorkshire puddings alone had resulted in blackened muffin tins, encrusted with baked-on food. These were the days before no-stick cookware. And the roast pan? I learned quickly that if I complained enough I might just hear, "Just leave it to soak, dear."

My parents would take their coffee to the living room to relax, while my sister and I would battle it out over who would wash and who would dry. We were forbidden from flicking wet towels at each other — tea towels were kept clean and never flung over the shoulder to pick up hair or worse (gasp) dandruff. I do remember getting in a few swipes with the dish-mop, though. Our dad, by this time, would have retreated into his garden.

Mom finally settled on a system where the one who did the drying waited until the dishes had been washed, stacked in the rack, and laid out on clean tea towels on the counter before entering the room.

Sunday dinners were served in the dining room, the table set with a table cloth and napkins. There were plenty of rules when it came to eating in that household. No elbows on the table, no pushing peas onto your fork with your fingers, no feet on the rungs of the chair.

I admire my mother for sticking to the tradition of the Sunday family dinner where everyone sat down at the table together. We didn't always make it easy for her. I also appreciate that our parents taught the five of us proper table manners, how to set a formal dinner table, and how to handle a knife and fork.

We all make our own rituals and, good or bad, the formal Sunday dinner disappeared fairly early in my own household. Along with a few of the rules, although not the table manners.

The most valuable lesson I learned at my parents' table was the importance of family regularly sitting down together to share a meal and conversation. Whatever day of the week it happens to be.

Do you have particular traditions when it comes to meals at your house? Are they harder to uphold as your children get older?

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