In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where eating in restaurants is generally far more expensive than eating out is in the U.S., family members actively share in preparing food at home. The ritual of carefully planning and executing even a simple meal means establishing one’s social identity and gaining basic skills. Monika hands over meal preparation to her two teens on a rotation basis. Nadja has all of her children assigned to different dinnertime tasks. And Lauren gathers adults and youths alike from the large international community in and around Geneva, modeling how everyone — from toddlers to grandparents — can participate, connect and contribute.
In Singapore as in Hong Kong, eating as a family is a cultural norm weighted with centuries-old expectations. Often, a family member from the senior generation will prepare the food for the simple evening meal. It was in Singapore more than anywhere else in the world that my children were encouraged to sample and eventually enjoy many different Eastern dishes, which aided in broadening their sensitivities to cultures markedly different from theirs. Our rule has been that, while you don’t have to like or finish everything served (like the pig organ soup or eel meat), you had to at least taste it once.
I made of point of constantly serving new foods (Singapore is a foodie’s Shangri-la, so there was no end to the culinary diversity from which we could sample). What we learned was that kids are not born with taste buds for (or against) octopus, any more than they are born with taste buds for (or against) root beer. Those taste buds are developed. Gathering at Deepti’s, Su-Ling’s and Xihua’s tables taught us to expand our tastes and embrace diverse cultures.
Norwegian predictability, French conviviality, German practicality, Austrian propriety, Swiss simplicity, Singaporean diversity — all have been taught around a table. What has also been taught but is harder to trap in one word has been the stabilizing presence of this old family table itself. During times of major transition (as with our multiple international moves, but also with far greater upheavals related to major loss), our table has been a constant. It is where we have communed, where we’ve brought our worry, our frustration, our insecurity, our triumph, our fear, our joy and our deep mourning — all hunger of the soul, with the faith that it’s here we’d be fed.
Melissa Dalton-Bradford is the author of "Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family" (Familius, July 2013). Connect with her at www.melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com.
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