Several weeks ago, I read — and reread — Pete Wells’ column in The New York Times “Cooking with Dexter: Busy Signals.” Wells is the dining editor at The Times, a food writer, an accomplished cook and, more important, committed to cooking and eating with Dexter and Elliot, his two young sons. But, like so many others, he can’t seem to get dinner — or himself — to the family table with any regularity. I increasingly hear this lament, and it saddens me because I believe in the power of eating together and I believe in the power of cooking. And I don’t believe that it has to be complicated.
A baby boomer, I grew up in NYC with two brothers and two working parents. There was no idea that my father’s job as a stockbroker was more important than my mother’s as a magazine writer. They both worked within walking distance of our midtown Manhattan apartment. My mother — not a type-A personality — got home at 5:30 p.m., put down her bag, kicked off her heels and prepared dinner. Sometimes I hung out with her, sometimes I peeled something, but mostly we talked about our days.
Weeknight dinners were simple: broiled pork chops or chicken, steamed green beans or broccoli, and a salad, usually lettuce and sliced cucumbers (OK, she did use bottled salad dressing). Weekends — and dinner parties — were different. Like many women in the ’60s, she cooked through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” My brothers and I thought her weekend fare exotic, experimental and off-limits. In fact, I began learning to cook as an antidote to Hungarian Goulash, Beef Bourguignon and the like. But we were happy for Chocolate Mousse and Raspberry Mousse, desserts a rarity on weekdays.
My father arrived home at 6:30 pm. Like a ’60s TV sitcom, we rushed to the door (“Daddy!! Daddy!!”) and then sat down to dinner together. When my parents went out, my brothers and I had frozen TV dinners. I don’t remember thinking they tasted good, but I do remember the excitement of eating something so unusual, so seemingly indulgent. We ate in the kitchen, certainly not in front of the TV, which was off-limits on school nights. On occasion, most often on Sundays, we went to Chinatown Charlie’s, just around the corner, for a big night out.
It’s true there was no email, no Internet, no cellphones; no one thought it was important to be in touch with every single person 24 hours a day. Long-distance phone calls were outrageously expensive. There were only three major television networks. Unlike today, employers actually expected you to go home and be with your family; the idea was that you were married to your family, not your job. And jobs were more plentiful; my parents didn’t have to worry that one false move would lose them theirs. There was, for most people, more separation between their home life and their work life.
Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Washington Post in which I duplicated typical fast foods, down to the number of pickles and weight of the “beef.” In every single case my “from scratch” version was less expensive, less time-consuming and, said my teenage testers, more tasty. My conclusion: We’ve been duped into thinking that fast food is an everyday solution.
So here’s the question: Was my mother’s week night “formula” the right one? Pete, like many of us, tried too hard to make interesting and/or complicated meals. My mother, on the other hand, focused on getting simple, real food on the table so we could eat together, which was what mattered the most. She saved her creativity for weekends when she had more time and energy. And wouldn’t we all be better off following her lead?
I would vote with Pete for “a federal law that requires everyone to leave work at 5 p.m.” And like Pete, even I, who love/live to cook, have moments “when cooking feels like drudgery”; it’s brutal to keep coming up with novel ideas for dinner. Maybe the point is just to be together and learn about each other’s days. If you can’t find the time to eat with your family regularly, dedicate one day a week to making it work. If all you can muster up is sandwiches, that’s a noble start. If you can cook something and include your kids, that’s even better. You don’t have to be Betty Crocker, and you don’t have to cook a masterpiece. Just start somewhere.
Sally Sampson is the founder and president of ChopChop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sally Sampson