Progress is important and as we all know, sometimes progress cannot be stopped – it has an energy and mind of its own. In my lifetime the amount of change described as “progress” has been and continues to be staggering. I believe that it was Julia Child who stated (and I am paraphrasing): “Every significant change in history has been accompanied by a change in the way we grow, process, cook, and consume food.” Progress over my lifetime has given credibility to this statement. The question is – what have we lost in the process?
Not too long ago, the family table was one of the most sacred parts of the home. This is where family traditions took center stage in the form of cooking methods and recipes passed down from previous generations, protocols of respect, conversation about the day’s activities, family values, current events, and celebrations of large and small accomplishments. The family table was where beliefs were built, traditions were passed on, character was defined, and challenges were addressed. It was this sense of community that defined the core of an American family.
“Breaking bread” is universally used as a phrase to portray the values associated with the family table.
“To break bread is to affirm trust, confidence, and comfort with an individual or group of people. Breaking bread has a notation of friendliness and informality, derived from the original meaning regarding sharing the loaf.”
From this sharing came understanding, acceptance, appreciation, and a sense of unity that today seems to be lacking in so many situations. Could the root of many of our societal problems be linked, at some level, to our drift away from the literal and philosophical meaning of “breaking bread”? Maybe this is a stretch, but think about how so much has changed in the past 100 years and how much as a society we have strayed from the premise of strength in the family table.
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, most Americans lived, worked, and grew up on farms. Subsistence farming allowed families to grow their own food, care for their families first, communicate around the family table, and build on the character of what it meant to be part of a community. With the advent of manufacturing that all changed as families drifted further from their connections with the materials of cooking and began to rely on a growing distribution system that brought those materials to them. This merchant trade of new earned money for product continued through the next few decades, even giving life to neighborhood restaurants where even the process of cooking was turned over to merchants. The family table was beginning to evaporate and would continue to do so at an alarming rate through two World Wars and into that respite of time known as the 50’s. Prosperity meant that cooking was being replaced by convenience – frozen ingredients, TV dinners, pre-prepared items, and Wonder bread, made it possible for the average homeowner to relinquish the responsibility for cooking to the processing plant. Planted in front of the living room television, Americans stopped conversing, lost the intoxicating aromas of fresh food from every kitchen, and began a decade long drift away from the importance of sharing and moving towards the space of the individual.
In subsequent years we fell under the spell of microwave ovens that allowed every person in the family to determine what and when they would eat, restaurants of every type and price point from coast to coast where “being served” was preferred to serving yourself, and a rapidly changing definition of what it meant to be part of a family emerged. We plug into our MP3 players, are engrossed in becoming more and more connected in the digital world and less and less in the real world with family, friends and associates, and look to restaurants to fill in the gaps.
So, where are we now? What is missing and what, as a result, are the consequences? We don’t talk, we rely on others, outside of the family to help build our moral compass and our philosophical approach towards life, and we turn our health over to manufacturers who produce foods that, in many cases, are almost unfit for consumption. We talk about our love of food in America while the majority of individuals no longer know how to cook even the most basic foods. Traditions are no longer passed down from generation to generation and that recipe that your great grandmother proudly prepared from memory has long been lost. The family table is no longer an opportunity to sit and enjoy the food prepared by caring individuals, discussing our lives, turning to others for guidance and advice, and working through challenges and disappointments together. Getting a family to spend more than 15 minutes together at the table is a truly remarkable event.
Is it possible to point the finger at this societal change and say that it may be one of the causes of the problems we currently face? When else would we find the time to sit together and discuss education, relationships, careers, beliefs, history, faith, and yes – politics? How much do we miss that family table?
I suppose that this is a topic, one that I have ranted about many times before, worthy of more scientific study, but I am going out on a limb to say “Bring back the family table, it will make a difference.” Teach your children about your family history, research your family tree and relish what you learn, pass on this knowledge and do it while you are breaking bread. Celebrate the small wins, toast to your health, listen to everyone’s challenges and problems and help them to come to some resolution, enjoy each other’s company and do so while breaking bread. Don’t stop going to restaurants – they are important, but when you go make sure that it becomes more than simply a place to fill your stomachs – make it another chance to create a family or friend table. Food is more than fuel, it is a catalyst for sharing, caring, and celebrating what makes us the same and what makes us different. Food is that universal communicator that allows us all to set aside those things that make us sad, angry, jealous, and seemingly opposed to each others beliefs, and simply smile and enjoy the flavor, tradition, and grace that comes from satisfying the palate.
Is the family table an answer to some of the world’s problems – maybe not, but maybe so? While you are trying to figure that out, think about trying this:
- Have designated meal times in your home and stick to it.
- Make sure that everyone is at that table – make it sacred time.
- Plan menus and take the opportunity to introduce new flavors and traditional ones in a format that everyone appreciates.
- Get rid of that microwave oven! Cut the strings of dependence and start cooking.
- Invest in cooking – spend time in the kitchen and invite others in.
- Buy fresh ingredients and open up those cookbooks – take a stab at it – cooking is fun and therapeutic.
- Engage everyone in lively discussions around the dinner table and make sure that it is not rushed. Dinner takes time to produce, take the time to enjoy what is made.
- Require everyone to take part in setting the stage for the meal and cleaning up afterward.
- Make sure that your family history is an occasional topic around the dinner table. Talk about the real diverse heritage that is the core of every American family.
- When you go out to a restaurant – pick one that allows you to re-create that forum for sharing, truly enjoying well-prepared food, talking about the experience of eating and dining, and relishing the opportunity to be together.
- Turn off the cell phones during dinner. Make this digital free time.
- Make sure, most importantly, that you pass on a love of cooking and a love of the family table to the next generation.
Maybe it won’t help to put the world back in alignment, but I guarantee that it will make you feel like you are doing your part.
“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes (rediscover old ones), learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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