Question for you: Have you spent your entire tenure as a parent attempting to recreate the cozy, happy life of Charles, Caroline, Laura, Mary, and Carrie Ingalls? Their togetherness, their resourcefulness, their graciousness — their family dinners followed by Pa’s raucous fiddling?! (Please don’t forward me the New Yorker profile of Laura’s libertarian daughter, Rose, who, we know now, did most of the Little House writing for her mom, and also added the rosy hue to her family’s story in the name of commercial romanticism.) I’ve been reading one or another of the seven books in the series to my girls for the last three years and in addition to providing beautiful storytelling and can-do inspiration, they have proved to be an endless spring of teaching moments. You’re whining about getting more Silly Bandz?! For the first five years of Laura’s life the only doll she owned was a corn cob wrapped in a dishtowel! (Did I say teaching moments? I think I meant lecture moments.)
My friend Rory is convinced that if you handed any of the books to a picky eater that the paragraph-long descriptions of fried pigs tails and syrupy Johnny Cakes, maple candy and cambric tea, would cure the kid of the fussiness for good.
I was thinking of the Ingalls family when I read Michael Pollan’s recent article The Food Movement, Rising in the New York Review of Books. This line in particular:
“Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and a smaller amount of their time preparing it: a mere thirty-one minutes a day on average, including clean-up.”
Thirty-one minutes on average including clean-up! Imagine telling the Ingalls this. How would they spend the other 11 1/2 hours of their day if this were the M.O. in the big woods of Wisconsin or the open plains of the Dakota territories? Indeed, much of what resonates for me about the Ingalls is that their entire day, every day, all year long is leading in one direction: Dinner. Not just tonight’s dinner, but the meals they will eat all year long. Best of all, everyone in the family is involved in the production of dinner. It’s a shared, common purpose. In some ways, the only purpose.
And it’s a shared common purpose that I believe still has a place — albeit a redefined place — in our industrialized, post-feminist society. One of the books Pollan discusses in the review is The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society by Janet A. Flammang. (It’s on order. I feel certain you’ll be hearing a lot more about it.) Pollan writes:
Flammang makes a convincing case for the centrality of food work and shared meals….A scholar of the women’s movement, she suggests that “American women are having second thoughts” about having left the kitchen. However, the answer is not for them simply to return to it, at least not alone, but rather “for everyone—men, women, and children—to go back to the kitchen, as in preindustrial days, and for the workplace to lessen its time demands on people.” Flammang points out that the historical priority of the American labor movement has been to fight for money, while the European labor movement has fought for time, which she suggests may have been the wiser choice.
The point is, we are due for a dinner mindshift that everyone must be part of. The answer to all our family dinner problems is not to be found in a 30-minute meal strategy (31-minute meal strategy?) or an arsenal of Annie’s Mac & Cheese and Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas (though there are roles for those things to play to be sure). How about this weekend we start shifting a little. How about we try to think about dinner more as a reward after a hard day of working and playing and less as a dutiful, it’s-coming-no-matter-what, final indignity. Let’s think of it as a party and as a purpose. And if at all possible, let’s get the whole family working on it together. Ingalls-style.