Courtesty of Melissa Dalton-Bradford and Familius
Massive, hand-hewn and three meters long, our Norwegian farm table dominates every home we live in. That’s a lot of dominating, if you consider that our family has lived in 16 homes (including a compact Parisian apartment) in eight countries over the 20 years we’ve been on the global road.
But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Hoisting and hauling this hulking plank of pine has also meant anchoring our busily mobile family with something stable. And everyone knows: things that whirl need stability, some sort of gravitational center — an axis, shared routines, simple rituals — to keep the whirl from spinning off in so many opposing directions.
Whether your family is circling the globe or running in circles right in your cul de sac, maybe you’re craving a gravitational center, too. Cultural anthropologists say we need them. But where to find such a center? Researchers suggest that the simple ritual of gathering for mealtime is one “densely packed event,” a fixed point where not only food, but nourishment on many levels is shared.
How do these other cultures I’ve lived in gather at their family table?
I’ll begin where the table did, in Norway.
Idar, Karin and Eva-Marie are some of our Norwegian friends who taught us during five years in their quiet, steady country the value of eating fish in all forms and nearly every day. Beyond menu, though, we learned from them that mealtimes were simple, predictable, sit-down events where moderation and cooperation are prioritized and modeled.
At Pia’s and Børre’s, we sat for many structured and streamlined Norwegian meals, their focus being on peaceful interchange between all generations. Our children, elementary school age at the time, were expected to exercise self-control so as to sit through an evening of silver cutlery and adult conversation. One of the first phrases they learned, which every Norwegian child chants at the end of every meal, was, “Takk for maten. Kan jeg gå fra bordet?” (Thanks for the food. May I leave the table?)
And they actually waited for that nod of permission.
There’s no question I learned much about cuisine while living many years in France. But what sticks with me today (more than a perfectly blended béchamel) was the social centrality of dinnertime. Gathering for a family meal meant adults and children eating the same menu, everyone of all ages involved in the same discussion, and that discussion — lively, passionate, literate, about anything from what happened in another country to what was cooking in the next apartment — went on for hours.
Chantal, a friend, reminded me that it was uncouth to do anything but eat while eating (no TV or mobile devices allowed near the table), that the table was the chance to elevate your palate as well as elevate the behavior within your human relationships. “Les enfants ont de grands yeux,” she reminded me often, implying that children have big eyes, and they were taking in everything we adults were demonstrating of our cultural norms: Who speaks? When? How? With or without food in their mouth?
The table, I learned in Paris, is a place where we are alert to obvious but also subtle behaviors in ourselves and others. When adults are alert to changes in children, they can catch trouble — anxiety, depression, anger, deviance, eating disorders, academic apathy — early on.
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