Much Depends on Dinner
In 1963, President Kennedy invited Harry Truman back to the White House after a long and bitter absence during the Eisenhower administration. A white-tie dinner was arranged in Truman's honor. The after-dinner entertainment ended with Truman, an amateur but enthusiastic pianist, taking a turn at the Steinway, "as pleased as a man could possibly be." For Kennedy it was a dinner party; for Harry Truman it was a homecoming.
Dinner, like furniture or clothing, says a great deal about us as a culture. At its highest stage of evolution, the dinner party is a platform for discussion-- a state dinner at Camelot bustling with an exchange of ideas and personalities, an eclectic mixture of Oscar Wilde and William F. Buckley, a mixed stew of showmanship and intellect.
But in its passion for the details of human activities, dinner also exudes a reverence for life. My favorite scene in The Godfather shows the men preparing a pasta dinner. In the midst of a gang war, they cooked-- the mincing of garlic transforming chaos into order. Dinner slows the clock, allowing us a moment to catch our breath, to savor the stillness of the moment; the first taste of a family recipe connecting us instantly to each other, to our past and future.
Maybe that is why cooking is what most cultures do during extraordinary life events. We cook for weddings and funerals. We make cakes for birthdays and anniversaries. We commemorate great events in the life of our nation with roast turkey or barbecue. On a trip to central Africa in 1969, for example, I spent the night feasting and drinking in a small village in Cameroon during a local three-day celebration of the death of an elder-- a whirl of dancing, cooking, and brewing.
Around my own dinner table in Boston, my wife and I try to sow the first seeds of civilization by teaching our two young girls how to hold forks (although the area under their chairs is a wild anthropological record of our family's culinary history). That same table hosts business dinners, family reunions, neighborhood action groups, and the annual Cook's Illustrated Christmas party. That table has heard the kids singing "This Old Man," heated political discussion, and debates about General Lee's strategy at Gettysburg, all thrown into the mix of standard family fare, from "What did you do at school today?" to weekend plans, career anxieties, even the preferred method for dispatching kitchen mice. But it is all done over food.
In some deep, primitive manner, food and conversation are inextricably linked. In Western culture, this notion has been taken to the extreme. In most other societies, one eats and then talks or vice-versa. We, on the other hand, are taught how to dine and converse at the same time, a feat that requires elaborate social customs to avoid choking to death. In the rereleased 1961 classic, Tiffany's Table Manners, ninety-three pages of do's and don'ts assist teenagers to navigate the murky social waters of mixing eating with speaking. The author, Walter Hoving, offers the reader the opportunity to avoid "dinner-table insecurity later in life" by following such strictures as, "Don't smack your lips," Learn "to talk with a little in your mouth," and "Don't hold your soup spoon like 'a mashie niblick.'" Social intercourse, not consumption, is the overriding philosophy.
But dinner also serves a deeper purpose-- it connects us to the continuity of life when that continuity is broken. A few summers ago, we were in the middle of a dinner party at our farmhouse during a terrible thunderstorm. The phone rang. It was bad news-- a close friend of ours had died suddenly. We stayed up late that night, around the table, drinking, eating, and telling stories about personal moments, the little details of life that become so important when they have no future. We shared those stories together as we had shared dinner. It made his passing part of our lives.
A few days later, my wife and I packed up our young daughter and drove down to New Jersey for the funeral. The service was difficult-- he was to be married that October. Afterwards, we all met downstairs in the basement for something to eat. It was simple food, honest and homemade. At first it was awkward, but the food was good and was eaten, strangers were introduced, and there was conversation. As I walked out into the sunlight holding a sleeping one-year-old, I could even hear a few strains of tempered laughter. It felt just like a homecoming.