This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.
By Tania Lorena Rivera
Throughout my childhood and teenage years, dinnertime, for me, was both a joyous and a dreaded occasion. My dad, who was a pediatric resident in El Salvador, turned to his second passion once he immigrated to Canada: cooking. He went to culinary school and became a chef specializing both in French and Italian cuisine.
During his training, three-course meals were the norm in my house. Fresh Niçoise salad, melt-in-your-mouth Osso Bucco, decadent chocolate cake topped with homemade white frosting and Maraschino cherries. Yes, indeed, we were well fed. All that butter!
But as much as I looked forward to yet another delicious dish every evening, I was also wary about sitting at our dinner table. Dinnertime was my parents’ chosen time for serious talks, for big news, for sermons and decision making. More often than not, our conversations were as bitter and unpleasant as our meals were sweet and enjoyable.
For many years, we sat down as a family to enjoy a feast fit for any king but in a room filled with tension and resentment. I soon came to understand that while these meals may have started as a treat, they ended up feeling like a ruse to get us kids gathered at supper time. Trapped at the table, we had to hear our father’s speeches. Sit through mom’s announcement about how an acquaintance of hers was coming to stay with us. Or listen to their big shared news about how they were taking over our basement to start a business there.
The more casual meals were done by my mom. Inspired by our Salvadorian culture and grandma’s recipes, her meals tasted like home and were rich and comforting. Funny thing, Mom’s cooking calmed everybody down. Like pure magic, her warm, soothing cuisine brought out the smiles and the laughs. Proof that sometimes the best things are always the simplest.
Not to say dad’s dishes were always dipped in bad memories. There were many good times too. For example, one Christmas where he ditched the traditional turkey for lobsters. Salty, buttery, tender, juicy lobsters for our Christmas Eve meal. Or the time he made a four feet long sub just for the heck of it. Those are the times that stick out. Amongst the many gourmet dishes, the ones where we laughed and shared and enjoyed ourselves are the ones that remained ingrained in my memory. Not for the food, but for the mood around our dinner table.
Now a mother myself, I understand how convenient it was for my parents to have serious conversations with us or bring up delicate subjects at dinnertime. It was a perfect opportunity. We were all together, they had our undivided attention, and we weren’t the kinds of kids to storm off out of a room in anger. A parent was talking, you sat there and listened and took it all in, even if it meant eating with a bulky knot in your throat.
But I never agreed with this method of parenting. I wanted to enjoy my food, taste every morsel, savor every bite and not worry about what my parents had in store for us conversation wise. Homemade fresh pizza was not a plate one should shed tears over. I knew very early on that dinnertime should not be the place for reprimands and loaded speeches or big news. It should be a time dedicated only to the consumption of good food and a happy, light time with your family. A time where a warm meal should be the primary focus and enjoyable company an added bonus.
In our household, my kids are allowed to eat with a good book or their tablet. I don’t expect them to talk with their dad and me. They can, if they want to, but engaging with us shouldn’t be the sole purpose or focus of supper.
The big talks, the serious announcements can be made elsewhere, in their bedrooms, in the living room, in the car ride home from school. In a world where a lot is expected of them, they should be able to, at least once a day, sit down, unwind and eat in peace. All the rest can wait.
Tania Lorena Rivera lives in Montreal, Canada with her husband and three children. She writes about her experiences as a stay-at-home mom and she also dabbles in photography.
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