(My family in 2009 during my sister’s birthday at the family dinner table)
I grew up in a glue-tight home. The seven of us were inseparable. We did just about everything together, mostly initiated by my parents but we willfully joined in. We seldom dissented in wanting to do something they proposed. The most important family time, however, was always dinner. I’m talking about dinner every day. We enjoyed our nightly sena in the formal dining room, not the kitchen. We all participated in the process, too. Though Mami was the center and steering machine of the evening, we all contributed to the experience. Sis and I set the table. The boys walked the food over to the table from mom’s perfectly poised hands. And my dad would do the dishes and store the leftovers. It was routine we all looked forward to.
But it was our norm. Even Saturdays were met with a huge lunch in the formal dining room after church.
As a wildly busy adult, living my own life and chasing my own dreams, barely even home from all the traveling, enjoying a family meal at the dinner table is so precious now. It’s indicative of being able to take a break from those demanding responsibilities and relishing in the moments that make life count. Retrospectively, I remember the importance my parents placed on being together; on taking time from their daily duties to sit with and engage us. We’d sit at the table, bless our food with interlocking hands, and sit up straight with anticipation of our first bite, which was guaranteed to be amazing. Of course, because Mami cooked it all. We’d talk about Cuban politics…. I remember that distinctly. I always had an opinion. Mami was very inquisitive about my dad’s day at the office — at the time, the Cuban Desk within the State Department’s Radio Marti — a news outlet disseminating real-time information to the people in Cuba — and how it could have a direct effect on us as Cuban-Americans. I wanted to know more about Castro’s doing to my people in Havana. My other siblings were the least bit interested, so we’d eventually move on to other topics. We’d plan our bi-weekly camping excursions. Where were we off to next?! Oh, Canada! Yes! Let’s go camping at Niagara. We used do that a lot.
Better yet, as children, we’d discuss our foils and setbacks at school, from elementary to high school; a strong 16 years difference. Mami and Papi helped each of us navigate our feelings, allowing us to park our conclusions in a productive and safe place. We’d cry if they pried too much. We’d make fun of each other if something unfortunate happened… like the time I got my period in 7th grade and “it” got all over the white leather couch in the principal’s office. My sister was sympathetic because she knew it was coming her way. But the boys chuckled.
I don’t have a single ill-memory of those ritual dinners. It was our family moment of imperfection interwoven with perfect mannerisms. It’s where my dad taught us the basic courtesy of saying “please and thank you” when you ask for anything. It’s where chewing gum was not allowed. It’s where we learned to say “excuse me” if we had to leave the table.
It was a growing place.
I’ve seen the evolution of our dinners. We’re all adults now, most of us have left the house and even DC, where we’re from. Though we’re no longer under the same roof, breaking bread on a daily basis, we do make it a point to fellowship at least once a week. And when we do, we go back to my parents’ formal dining room, the very one on which we grew up eating. The conversations are mature now. The mood is a bit more quiet. More reflective. But we laugh and tell jokes the same, especially during the holidays.
Our relationship with our parents is an unbreakable one, filled with love and mutual respect and admiration. Our dinner table contributed to the stability of our family unit. It remains to be happy place where we laugh, share stories, cry, pray, and eat!
Food is a unifier. It brings people together. Not just families. It’s a stable place for conversations. And conversations over food have the power to break down a lot society’s ills. When we are full of good food, we are happy, and when we’re happy, we allow ourselves to become controllably vulnerable. That can lead to an empowering moment of letting others know how we feel, what we need. We extend ourselves more naturally. People become more sensitive.
I always wonder about new and younger families. Do they sit at the dinner table like we did as children? I’m of firm belief that family dinner at the table is the foundation for building basic human sensibilities. Lessons learned at the dinner table are lessons we take with us as adults. Lessons that implicate our treatment of others and the world.
Sure, some of us are just so busy, we can’t make it happen. But it’s not impossible. The Family Dinner Project touched a soft spot when I read about their initiative to invite families to gather around the table during dinner. Their mission is to inspire families to enjoy Mami’s food together. We didn’t need organizations like theirs years ago, but in this age of “instant” everything, it’s necessary, it seems, to have outlets that are full of resources. They offer tips for those busy families. If you’re not as verbose in kick starting a conversation, they have that ideas on how to organically start one with your kids.
Beyond family dinners which are intimate and private within your home, there’s equal importance in doing food-oriented activities together. When you grow up appreciating family dinners, you eventually understand the need to be of service together. Every Christmas, my family gets up early and prepares meals for up to 50 people in Washington. We add love notes to the take away containers and draw something inspirational. The homeless in DC are grateful when we dish them a warm meal made with love.
We do it together.
I understand this, but so many new generation families may not. Family Dinner Project‘s breadth of experience lends to added support in giving to others as a family unit. With #familydinnerforward, we can follow the conversation on how to implement dinner-oriented acts of giving. For you, it can mean inviting a single friend over for dinner. For me it could mean preparing meals on Saturday morning at the my local food bank. The point is to share our togetherness with those around us. To inspire your friends and colleagues to share food and have a conversation.
My parents have taught me a lot. They still do. But the daily practice of breaking bread as a family, taught me to respect food, time, and people. Our thoughts matter when we share them. I hope to pass this tradition to my own family one day!
* this post was part of a compensated editorial partnership with The Family Dinner Project. All storytelling and opinions are my own, always!
Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.