I had an epiphany cooking this week: I think most of us look at meals as something we possess rather than something we experience. And at the risk of creating a distinction without a difference, I want to dive into our language around the table and see if it tells us anything about how we view mealtime.
Here are the three most frequent questions I get when I cook for people:
What are you making for dinner? or What are we having for dinner?
Is this dish/recipe/idea yours (or did you get it from someone else)?
Can you give me that recipe?
The implication of these three very common (and appropriate) questions, is that dinner is, in reality, a commodity. It is a thing that we can make, possess, steal, & give to others. We can reduce the event of a meal to the contents that are put on the plate. Consequently, the answer to the question, “how was dinner?” is a commentary on the quality of the food.
Now, as someone who teaches people to cook good food for a living, I am deeply invested in creating healthy, delicious food that doesn’t stress out the cook or disappoint those eating it. But I am also reminded that most of my most memorable meals had very little to do with the food I was eating. It was the time and place that lined up perfectly with what I needed at that point in my life. It was the company and conversation that fed my soul while I ate. It was a savored moment that captured a piece of my personal history in an unforgettable way.
When we are eating at home, cooking has the opportunity to become an avenue or an obstacle for those kind of experiences. Dinner can be an event that we create, experience and witness. It is something we are part of, not just another thing we consume. So our disposition as we create and share this event can go a long way to determine how we feel about that experience.
And yet, I have three kids. I get it. There are many days when I look over at my wife and we say to each other with our eyes, “Let’s just get through this meal alive and get these people in bed.” There are many days, too many days, when I’ve dutifully and creatively pieced together a delicious meal that I am proud to serve, only to be bombarded with frustration, disappointment and anger as my kids pick around it and say mildly polite and passive aggressive things like, “this is…interesting.” And there have been many days when my guilt over throwing a frozen pizza in the oven has probably robbed me of what could have been a meaningful, memorable moment at the dinner table.
But lately, occasionally, I have remembered to slow down and savor the moments. I grilled corn on the cob last night and I smiled while I watched my youngest eat her favorite food so methodically that the empty cobs looked like they had been “de-kerneled” by a machine. I giggled as my family compared swapping their favorite parts of the meal with each other like the old trading card game “Pit.” I forgave myself for getting caught up in frustration for running out of propane and having to finish the steaks in the broiler. I flirted with my wife while we compared wine glasses to make sure we were splitting the end of our California Cab as evenly as possible. (It doesn’t matter because she always steals mine in the end!) And I got teary when my 7-year-old, after hearing about Memorial Day all day, prayed, “God, be with the families that have had to give more than they should have had to.”
So if you ask me how dinner was last night, forgive me if I forget to mention that I overcooked the first Michigan asparagus of the year. I’m gonna choose to savor the silly, somber, life-giving experience where we also happened to eat some food I cooked.