August 1, 2010
The Chicken Soup SolutionBy G. Murphy Donovan
There are four clear threats to the modern family, and possibly civilization at large: cell phones, the iPod, the internet, and junk food. We allow the first three because they are cheaper than tutors, babysitters, and nannies. Indeed, those gadgets support a kind of electronic autism, where neither parent nor child speaks to the other. With junk food, the threat is more complicated -- a fusion of chemistry and culture. In combination, semi-social gadgetry and poor diets seem to be conspiring to produce a generation of chubby mutes with attention deficit disorders.
Culture begins and ends on a plate. We eat to live, and then we live to eat. From the earliest times, food has played a key role in the 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 take a place at our table. Thus, 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, 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.
As civilization progressed, we advanced from eating to dining. Indeed, dining is the one activity which competing guilds and clubs had in common. The act of eating became a kind of social cement, where the table was used for things beyond nourishment. The "groaning board" evolved into a variety of utilitarian instruments including desks, ping-pong tables, and surfboards. The places where people sat to eat became and remain the building blocks of what we used to call family and civil society.
Over time, we lost touch with the "family" part of the equation. A few years back, Hillary Clinton illuminated a typical outlook by sneering, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies." Her attempt to defend pantsuits at the expense of aprons sent a chilling message to parents everywhere. Yet that regrettable kitchen metaphor is fairly typical of the dismissive attitude of many "progressives" towards all things domestic - especially cooking for and eating with children.
Ironically, 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 toys, playgrounds, and creepy clowns -- or the ubiquitous gumball machine. This last is often the healthiest choice on the menu. Private junk food is supplemented by a public school trough, where to qualify, parents must admit that they cannot or will not feed their children at home.
Maybe it was the social turmoil of the 1960s or just the bong resin of feminism; either way, 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 selfishness. Adult wants became more important than children's needs.
The 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 customers 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 cannot cook for, or eat with, our families. Yet none of the negatives are as persuasive as the reasons for dining at home: economy, health, and education.
A single twenty-pound 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 ninety-nine cents a pound. A chicken (eight-ounce portion) and rice dinner at home costs fifty-five cents. If you boil the bird, you have the makings of soup. Throw in a vegetable and some fruit for dessert and you have a five-course meal for less than a buck. Your cat's 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 or participate.
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 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 homeschooling might be something as simple as a meal together once or twice a day.
By the time kids reach their teens, all that parents have left is influence. If those early opportunities are missed, we waste our lives and damage theirs. Kitchen and dinner tables are the earliest and best opportunity to educate and socialize children. If we're too busy for this, we have to ask ourselves: What's more important? If adults 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.
Parallel epidemics of electronic autism, childhood obesity, 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 in every sense of the words.
The process of education, as Socrates noted over two millennia ago, is simply a dialogue: one or more civil people exchanging information and ideas. 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. And by the way, the kitchen is the tiled room without a bidet.