Family Dinners

Most of my childhood dinners were a traditional, consistent affair; my dad, whom we always called “Papa,” was a baker, and worked both day and night shifts, but tried to be home for semi-formal dinners every night. My brother and I would set the table, and sometimes help with dishes and a few other chores, and Mama would usually cook, although we liked Papa’s meals the best because that’s what he did for work – cooked and baked – and he was good at it. When everything was ready we would all go sit down together around our multi-purpose school/craft/dinner table, and talk about our day; we each had a regular place where we would sit which formed a half-circle around the table, with my dad, my mom, my older brother, then myself. My brother and I were homeschooled, and we would often talk about what we had been learning that day, especially the books we had been reading. Books were very important to my family, and every night my dad would read a story out loud to us after dinner, well past the age when we could have dome so for ourselves. I think we had pretty normal American dishes like macaroni & cheese, spaghetti with meat sauce, roast beef, pot roast, and baked chicken, or fun things like artichokes in garlic-butter sauce. On special occasions we had steak with baked potatoes and sauteed mushrooms. My grandfather on my father’s side had been an army cook overseas and then in Yuma, and my dad had learned from him the art of big roasts, gravies, and other such solid American fare. One year for school we investigated foods from other cultures and “ate our way around the world.”

Sometime during my teen years something changed in how we did dinner as a result of the combination of factors, including my dad changing jobs and being less available to have dinner with us all the time, my brother and I becoming picky and lethargic teens, and our nearly giving up the already losing battle to keep our dining table from being taken over by stuff. After that my brother would often just serve himself some food and then retire into his bedroom, not to emerge except to get seconds or thirds. The food was rather delicious; my mom’s best dishes were fried rice cooked in a big red wok, spaghetti with clams in garlic-butter sauce, and shredded-beef enchiladas made from left-over pot roast. My dad was into meat and potatoes, but in a gourmet, tasty sort of way, and made things like chicken breasts sauteed in butter-wine sauce, roast chicken with stuffing (or cornish game hens sometimes), and a multitude of roasts with gravy. The food and conversation were the main things; presentation was nominal or non-existant.

For big American holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving we would go over to my grandmother’s house and get together with all my uncles, aunts, and cousins on my mother’s side (she came from a family of five); everyone brought a special dish and the host or hostess would make a turkey, ham, or roast, and have a big buffet-style meal that lasted several hours. for Christmas we would buy Crackers and have to wear the crepe-paper crowns and share the silly jokes and toys at the table, sometime between dinner and dessert. My family is Scottish and Irish on both sides, and it shows in some of our meals; we would always celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by making corned beef boiled with cabbage and potatoes, for instance, or tea and shortbread biscuts.

My family is firmly intrenched in the values and practices of traditional, conservative America, and as such made a conscious choice as my brother and I were growing up to try to have dinners together every night without any television or radio on to distract us, and talk about stuff. My parents’ two great interests are literature and religion, and they brought both to the table every night. We would say a prayer before eating, and talked about books, ideas, and, as a teen, religion issues (we were Calvary Chapel and Evangelical by choice, but Anglican by temperament). My mother’s family was a blend of the cultures of Scottish and Mexican-Americans; her father had grown up with his three brothers in Nogales Arizona and had also possessed a love for all things literary and Southwest, preserving cultural traditions from both Mexico and the British Isles. We didn’t see my father’s family very much, so I can’t remember anything significant about dinners with them.

Probably the largest effect of the cultural values I learned eating with my immediate and extended family is a kind of unshakable confidence in people’s ability to love and be a part of diverse cultural traditions without loss. “…Love drives out all fear” in more arenas than just the religious. In teaching, that makes it very difficult for me to understand why there need be a conflict between loving and participating in a number of diverse cultures, or why we need worry about either cultural sensitivity or losing our own. That we almost always got together at Mexican restaurants for family get-togethers, made jokes in Spanish over turkey, mashed potatoes, and calibacitas, and generally evidenced a hearty love of all things Mexican, with some members going there on a frequent basis and interacting easily in both tongues was a gain with no loss attached. Knowing one language well is an accomplishment which can only be increased, never diminished, by the acquisition of a couple more. My great aunt and uncle lived in Greece for several decades, where he taught classics at the Parthanon, and they loved all things Greek… and American, Scottish, Irish, and Mexican; another great uncle studied and translated ancient Mayan, and when he retired studied Chinese and lived in New Orleans. But all of this cultural activity hinged on one thing which was implied though never directly stated: we must love a thing for itself, not for some vague notion of international cultural sensitivity. That led me to a lot of confusion when I started taking education classes: whereas my family rarely thought about multiculturalism, yet spread infectious enthusiasm for a number of things of worth from a number of cultures; classes did nearly the opposite and preached the wonders of multiculturalism without reference to more than one or two actual works that we could be excited about teaching. In place of all those loves and enthusiasms was a kind of fear, one which I hadn’t ever thought to anticipate: fear that students wouldn’t add to their culture in America, but lose it; fear that knowing good English wouldn’t enliven, but rather obliterate, their parent’s native tongue.

In answer to the questions posed my this assignment, therefore, my family’s cultural background and get-together’s around the dinner table do not lend themselves to analysis in the terms of power: gender roles, oppression, status, class, and so on easily. It would be possible, but completely antithetical to the spirit in which things were conducted and therefore something coming from outside, rather than inside those experiences. In education that spirit lends itself for looking for the difficulties and strengths of individual persons regaurdless of race, class, gender, etc – which is both a help and a handcap, depending on the situation. These things shaped my views and assumptions on power and oppression in one significant way: until there’s some specific injustice or difficulty created by those forces and unremediable by individual energy and attention, I won’t fret about them at all, because to do so is already to admit defeat in my primary goal: that individuals be treated as such, and that things run in harmony and love, with each person taking on whatever role, fulfilling whatever obligation, and offering whatever help will best benefit themselves and others.

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