A Brief History of Meal Time

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:24

The Guardian

1st September 1999


A great wave of sentimentality is spreading across Britain. In homes across the nation, in newspapers, radio and television, in pulpits and, no doubt in Thought for Today, people are bemoaning the loss not only of the country's favourite television advertisement but also the loss of that great institution, family meal. Since 1983 the Oxo family, at the end of every domestic crisis, has gathered at the dining table and enjoyed Mum's home cooking. This series of advertisements was the most popular in Britain, though it seems that the viewers did not rush out and buy Oxo gravy cubes. Instead, they bought packed pre-cooked dinners and gathered, not at the dining table, but around the television. Some research commissioned by Young's, the frozen food company, showed that in families with teenagers one family in twenty in Britain eats together only on Christmas Day, and over a third of those questioned said that they preferred to watch television while eating rather than sitting around a table with their family. Talking to other family members over dinner was not considered relaxing.

Advocates of the sacredness of the family and family values will be horrified by this news. What they will say about this news is likely to be sentimental tosh. They will speak of family dinners as if they are a sacred institution that has existed forever, when in fact the family eating together around a table is a custom which came into regular use only after the Second World War.

Eating is never an act which has to do only with providing ourselves with vital nourishment. It has many meanings for us, but when a group of people gather around a table the process of eating is usually more about power than about nourishment. When we lived in tribes all the tribe might gather at the site where food was being served, but those with the best access to the food were always the most powerful. The warrior men were served first and took the best food. The women and children were served last and got what was left over. When tables and seats at the table came into use, only those with power sat at the table, and then in a strict order of importance. The bowl of salt demarcated those who were of real importance and those who were not. The bowl of salt might have disappeared, but the hierarchical seating order still prevails where power and importance have to be demonstrated.

Children, servants and slaves had no power or importance, and so there was no place for them at the dining table. It has never been the tradition in Britain for children to be brought up in close proximity to their parents. If children had not been sent away to school or to work they ate in the kitchen or in the nursery. In Victorian times family meals were held on special occasions, but these again were occasions where power and importance were demonstrated. The father took precedence over all others. Children were required not to speak until spoken to and to follow a set of rules relating to what was regarded as proper behaviour at the table. Today many parents still impose the rule that a child must ask permission to leave the table. This rule certainly suggests that children have been forced to come to the table and, if given the choice, they would eat elsewhere.

The Second World War robbed middle and upper class families of one precious possession, the servant. Women had to learn to cook and serve their family meals. This was a tedious, time-consuming process, especially when there were none of the labour-saving devices which we take for granted today. To get feeding the family over as quickly as possible the women wanted the family to eat together. So the daily family meal was born.

What less peaceful ways are there of eating a meal than in the company of small children! Whenever I stay with friends who have small children I am usually offered a choice, to eat early with the children or to wait until the children are bathed and asleep in bed. Unless there is some practical reason for having an early meal, I usually choose to point out to my hosts that, as long as I am given easy access to gin and tonic, I am happy to wait until very late for my dinner. Invariably my hosts look relieved.

What would modern dramatists have done without the family meal? All human life is there, and usually the worst part of it.

There are those meals where not a word is said. My mother was always offended if any of her family said anything which she did not wish to hear, so I learned to hold my tongue. My father would try to make conversation, but if Mother did not feel like talking she soon froze him into silence.

In some families a family meal is the place for an argument. When I lived in Australia I was expected to visit a relative who had three school age sons. Every mealtime involved one of these boys, who had done nothing but be a boy, being yelled at, slapped and ordered from the table. I would get very anxious, fearing that I was next in line for such treatment. This behaviour was all about power, the parents wanting to demonstrate their power while at the same time fearing that their sons would be beyond their control.

Many parents find that the most effective way of controlling their children is to make them feel guilty. When I used to spend most of my working day listening to people who were depressed a recurring topic in our conversation was 'having to go to Mum's for Sunday lunch'. Even though my client knew only too well that this was a trigger for her depression, the guilt she would feel if she did not go would be worse than the depression. In all these cases the mother was a great upholder of the sacredness of the family.

From what I observed in my own family, from the families of friends and acquaintances, and from what my clients have told me it seems that there are a great many people who see nothing wrong in treating family members with immense disrespect, something they would never do to friends and strangers. This kind of behaviour is a refusal to talk. Yet, as everyone should know by now, it is vital that we talk to one another.

Family meals are hardly a good time to talk because food is best digested in a calm atmosphere, and a truthful sharing feelings and opinions is rarely calm. It is better to set aside some regular time when the family can be together to discuss matters like the washing up rota where opinions have to be canvassed and compromises made. Often we need to talk when we need to talk, and that means that the person we need to talk to has to be available. In the busy lives which parents and children lead availability can be difficult, but, if we take the time to be available when someone in the family wants to talk, we could then relax, our dinner on our lap, and watch television.

Dorothy Rowe