Plenty has been said about the importance of family dinners. Studies show that children raised in families that gather together regularly for meals are healthier, happier and better-behaved. Family dinners strengthen relationships and lessen stress at home; kids do better in school, and parents stay better connected to their children.
It's been a lot of years since I've had the opportunity to take part in this ritual; I haven't lived near my family in almost 14 years, and while it might sound like an odd thing to miss, it occurs to me that that's a long time to go without family dinners.
What I'm happy to report, though, is that something of the importance of this regular family gathering can be found in the ritual itself, even if the people involved aren't actually related.
That's something I've come to appreciate fully by its lack, as I think back on a stretch of time during the years I lived in Chicago, when some friends and I developed the habit of regular Sunday dinners together.
There was a core group that was always present, and we usually invited a few others to join us from week to week. Because a few of us in that core group loved to cook, we'd usually spend some time on Saturday brainstorming or browsing online for new recipes. Then there was the creation of a shopping list, a trip to the grocery store and, of course, the time spent together in the kitchen after church the next day preparing the meal.
I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but that routine became such an important part of our habits that, over the course of probably about four years, we rarely missed a week. However busy or scattered our lives became, every Sunday night you would find us in the kitchen together, chopping garlic and onions, cooking chicken, patiently adding broth to a risotto or assembling a salad.
After dinner, we always lingered for a few hours talking, making music or playing games before heading home to begin another week.
Even at the time, I had a vague sense that those weekly meals were something of an emotional anchor for me; I looked forward to a few hours in that safe space of friendship that was so constant, so familiar that it kept me grounded — no matter what else was happening in life to frazzle and distract. And now that it's been a couple of years since that ritual necessarily ended, with each of us going our separate ways, I realize more than ever how much it meant to me.
In retrospect, it's not much of a surprise to realize that among the people with whom I shared the Sunday dinner ritual were some of the most fiercely loyal, supportive friends I've ever known. We'd sit around a broken coffee table every Sunday night talking in future tense, presupposing that when we'd all moved on from Chicago and the single life, we'd still be a major part of each others' lives.
We talked about the stories we'd tell each others' children at reunions, and the trouble we'd be so equipped to get each other into — probably all knowing on some level that such reunions would never happen, but also knowing how inevitable they felt in such a setting. Families don't go their separate ways and never look back — and in those days, sitting around that makeshift dinner table with just three functioning legs, we felt like family.
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that it was the dinners alone that made that happen; we were lucky enough to find people we liked who had similar interests and who laughed at the same jokes, and we enjoyed each other's company. That matters — but the dinners did, too.
They gave us a sense of stability. Every week, we knew that whatever else had happened in any of our lives, every Sunday night we would gather in that apartment on Canal Street, cook something amazing, and just be together.
We would have a place to exchange ideas, to talk out problems or unload our concerns. We had people to laugh with and empathize with — and we had good food over which all of that so naturally, rightly played out.
I can't explain the social or evolutionary history that made the dinner table such an apt setting for that kind of closeness, I just know it is. I've seen it, and I've felt it — and now that it's gone, I miss it terribly.