We Gather Together
Shared meals strengthen people, families, communities, nations
November hosts America’s most high-profile meal, forever fixed in our mind’s eye by Norman Rockwell, who used the Thanksgiving table to showcase his idea of a traditional family dinner. But contrary to our national myth, our treasured Thanksgiving holiday was a post–Civil War effort of Abraham Lincoln’s to promote national unity.
Shared meals have that kind of power, not only to heal a nation but also to build community and strengthen family ties.
Every one of us harbors powerful memories of family food traditions that are woven tightly into defining who we are as individuals and as part of our tribe. A look at the history of mealtime illuminates our progression from hunter-gatherers to agrarian life to workers in the industrial revolution to our present fast-paced, tech-filled lives. Today, mealtime is a hot topic and pretty much all of us have an opinion.
As the way we secure food has changed, so has the way we consume it. Ten thousand years ago, killing a wild deer meant the entire community had to prepare and eat it together, or it went to waste, so shared meals were tied to our very survival. Now that we have so many choices for how we source our food—ranging from growing it ourselves to finding it on grocery shelves and in the drive-thru, packaged in single servings—sharing is no longer mandatory and sadly it’s a tradition that many Americans have left behind. Not me!
I am sad to see meals so often demoted to something taken on the run, jammed in between other activities. A lot has been lost along the way—conversation, communal tasks, leisurely consumption—and each of those missed opportunities has left a trail of unintended results. Researchers tell us that children who eat at least one home-prepared meal a day, while sitting around a table with their family, are less likely to use drugs, tend to do better in school and are generally healthier. At Recipe for Success Foundation, our students sit down to eat together after preparing food. Along the way, they learn sharing, teamwork and a little etiquette. Seems like a good enough reason for all of us to get back around a table for dinner.
My family’s meal traditions are woven into my soul as well as our routine. Each memory makes me smile and salivate. I’ve passed many of our meal traditions down to my own kids and grandkids: pulling them into the kitchen as soon as they could stand; teaching them to set the table and share their stories; connecting our garden produce directly to our plates; preparing dishes their great-grandmothers made alongside newer ones.
At dinner is where we continue to bond through the generations, with no topic of conversation off the table. It doesn’t take a holiday like Thanksgiving to get my family to sit down around a table for a lively meal together, but if you haven’t tried, it’s a good place to start.