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.
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.