The practice of eating together as a family feels like something that’s been happening forever, but that’s not the case. In The Wretched Table: How Dinner in America Became an Ordeal, Britt Peterson talks about the stresses of what’s a relatively recent cultural phenomenon:
Modern dinner is stressful by design. Once a midday meal of convenience, it took on a much more heightened cultural role during the Industrial Revolution, when the family began to splinter during the day and dinner became the reunion, Abigail Carroll, a food historian and author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, told me. And with that new elevation came new pressures.
Elinor Ochs, whose research forms the basis of the article, talks about the contradictions in the dinner experience:
Ochs’ results suggested some deep contradictions when it came to how Americans experienced dinner. On the one hand, she said, it was a moment of intimacy that encouraged kids to confide in their parents. On the other, there was intense pressure put on children, who came under both parents’ interrogative spotlight at once. She wrote that dinner could feel like a panopticon; that the way parents held out dessert as a reward for finishing vegetables was a highly Protestant way of putting duty before pleasure. “Everything that has a good side has also the potential to have a disruptive side that tears relationships apart,” Ochs told me.
The article itself mostly just whet my appetite for more.1 Notions of how the nuclear family takes on increased significance in the wake of the community-weakening dynamics of the industrial revolution (and after) is fascinating to me and I wish it dove in further.
- Pun honestly not intended, but there it is. ↩