As Published in The Rye Record on February 6, 2015
Much is made of death and taxes. Their unavoidability, the fact that they are always hanging, ominously, just over our shoulders. But death comes about only once in a lifetime, and tax season’s just once a year. Dinner, on the other hand, happens every day. Without fail. Every time I start chopping an onion I think, “Wait. Didn’t I just make dinner?” No, I’m afraid that was yesterday. And tomorrow.
The four o’clock panic starts with the slight grumbling of my stomach and ends like a game show. I suddenly remember about dinner – which makes me feel kind of dumb. This isn’t my mother-in-law’s birthday or Little League sign-up. It’s the main part of my job. When dinner catches me unprepared, I stand in front of my refrigerator and will it to yield a meal. Let’s see, I have half a head of broccoli, a handful of mushrooms, two chicken breasts and a hamburger patty. As a general rule, if I have an onion I can turn anything into dinner.
There are ways around making dinner, including ordering in or buying frozen entrees, things I sometimes do but have been brainwashed to think are worse than tax evasion. Blame my mother. She saw dinner as something more than a plate full of soon-they-won’t-be hungry. It was a ritual of sorts, the preparation of the food being an offering to the time that we would all sit together in festive communion. She would return from a full day of work, somehow with groceries in hand, and happily start cooking. She found it meditative and often said that the most relaxing part of her day was the chopping and sautéing. I guess it takes all kinds.
Sadly, I don’t see making dinner as the creative, magical experience that my mom did. This is partially because she was a joy-is-in-the-journey sort and I am more of a let’s-get-stuff-done person. It is also because I am raising kids in an era where they are allowed to have preferences. (I’m not sure whom to blame here, but I’d like to blame somebody). When I was a kid, there was dinner. And there were kids starving in Africa. Period.
My approach to making dinner is more like a decision science exercise, where you are trying to get two-dozen shipments of coal to several locations at the highest speed with the lowest cost. The meal itself is a formula: a protein, a starch and a vegetable. And I seek to fill each category and minimize complaints by reviewing the gourmet idiosyncrasies of my picky audience. I stroll through the supermarket aisles sorting through which kid eats green beans, but not carrots. Which one won’t eat cheese but likes fish. Which one likes turkey meatballs but not turkey burgers (FYI: the ingredients are identical). In the end, we just eat a lot of chicken.
For two magical weeks last winter, I discovered the crockpot, a shortcut that I think my mom would have approved of. It involved the same nurturing chopping and sautéing but just at a time of day when I still had a little life in me. I loved that crock pot, the feeling of being done with dinner at 9a.m. It was as if I’d beat the system by paying my whole day forward. But then the inevitable happened – one child rejected the crock pot. All of its meals were too saucy. Too saucy? I had a million comebacks, but this is the one kid who never gives me a hard time about brussels sprouts, so I retired that blessed appliance to a high shelf.
Many families have mealtime rules. No phones at the table. No discussing politics, religion or bathroom mishaps. My kids are allowed to talk about anything they want as long as it’s not food. If they can’t talk about food it’s impossible for them to comment on which food groups are touching. Or lumpy. Or burnt. It’s been a small victory to listen to any number of dirty jokes in lieu of “is this a different kind of potato? I liked the other kind of potato…”
Even though I am not the passionate cook that my mom was, I do still love the communion of dinner. The sitting down, the pause. Sometimes dinner is the first time I’ve sat down all day without a laptop or a steering wheel in front of me. “What happened today?” can be hard to answer because so much happened, so fast. The bad things can be funny in the retelling, which makes the dinner table a place to re-frame your experience. “You got knocked down on the play ground? A lady yelled at me in the CVS parking lot!” We all laugh. We all learn a few dirty jokes.
On the days when we can all sit down like this, I feel as if have been involved in something sacred. It’s probably for that best that there’s no way around dinner.