Like most American families, we lead a busy life. My 12-year-old daughter has crew from 4:15 to 6:15 in the afternoon. Her 8-year-old sister has ballet from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. My wife has a book club at 7 p.m. For most people, the problem might be figuring out how everyone gets where they are supposed to be. For me, the dilemma is: How are we going to eat dinner together? I continue to be amazed at how scheduling in America never seems to take mealtimes into account. Eating is considered a secondary activity to be squeezed into the day. In our family, we still eat together, even if it means eating late and giving the kids snacks to hold them until dinner.
Admittedly, food has always been particularly important in my family. When I was growing up, the day’s schedule was created around meal times. My father can put up with a lot, but not a bad meal, so my mother learned to cook when they got married. She went on to publish bestselling cookbooks and, according to Craig Claiborne, “No one has done more to spread the gospel of pure Italian cookery.” He might never have discovered my mother if it weren’t for the importance of mealtimes.
Around 1970, Claiborne, who was the New York Times food editor at the time, was intrigued that my mother was offering Italian cooking classes in her home. He called to ask whether he could interview her. When it proved difficult to find a time that was convenient, my mother said that my father came home for lunch every day, so why didn’t Mr. Claiborne come and join them? What might have been a small article about a woman offering Italian cooking classes became a huge feature story about how my parents made it a point to eat lunch together at home every day.
Meals aren’t just about the food
So why does eating together matter? Meals don’t just address our biological need to feed ourselves. Cooking and eating together have united humans since we first gathered around a fire to prepare the spoils of a successful hunt. Cooking for one’s family is a nurturing act of love. The experience of eating something prepared by someone who loves and cares for you, particularly a family member, can never be replicated in a restaurant. That’s why I always encourage our daughters to participate in preparing meals, which they love to do. It always increases their enjoyment of a meal.
The food we make for our families is an important legacy for the next generation. Some of my most powerful childhood memories are connected to meals. The tortelloni filled with Swiss chard that my grandmother made, still one of my favorite things to eat. New Year’s usually meant making tiny tortellini, which I would help my mother create because she would say, “your small fingers are just the right size!”
I was blessed to grow up eating mostly home-cooked meals prepared by relations for whom cooking was a passion: my mother, of course, but also my two grandmothers, whose dishes reflected their origins: Sephardic Jews on my father’s side and Italian ex-pats who settled in Egypt on my mother’s. You could say that the foods I grew up with were the result of culinary crossroads.
As my mother points out in her introduction to my new book, “Hazan Family Favorites,” there was more to our mealtime traditions than the sum of its recipes. Cooking itself constitutes tradition, a tradition in which the preparation of a fresh family meal creates a bond of affection and kinship, and serves as the affirmation of identity, an identity formed by the food culture one grows up with. A family meal is at once a private moment of nourishment and a celebration of our closest and strongest relationships.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Giuliano Hazan, is a best-selling author and award winning cooking teacher who runs an acclaimed cooking school in Italy. His latest cookbook, “Hazan Family Favorites,” celebrates his family’s culinary traditions.
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Photo: Giuliano Hazan. Credit: Andrea Hillebrand, photographer, in collaboration with Peter Bernard