As a child I always hated The Family Meal. Too many arbitrary rules and too much meat. I’d throw pieces of food under the table, thinking no one noticed, then watch as my brother got pudding while mine was withheld due to the scraps discovered around my chair.
Years later, anorexic, I avoided family meals altogether. I’d hide away with my homework while others ate, finally defrosting Lean Cuisine in the microwave at 10pm. It would take me an hour to eat the half-portion I dished out, then I’d retire to bed, barely having spoken to anyone.
Strangely, this ritual only seems sad now, when I position myself as an outsider. I wasn’t that unhappy at the time. After all, it was the one point in the day at which I was getting to eat. Have tea any earlier, and I’d lose all control, or so I thought. I didn’t consider the loneliness of my family, faced with the empty space at the table. What would have been the point? Sticking to my own rules felt such a necessity that nothing else mattered.
I suppose there are plenty of ways in which you can interpret what was going on back then. The devious anorexic manipulates her family, spitefully subverting the rules of communal dining. The family outcast expresses her isolation by literally withdrawing from the sharing of food. The victimised daughter is silently terrorised out of taking her place at the table. As ever with attempts to interpret anorexic behaviour, none of it quite fits. The external manifestations create pretty metaphors but don’t tell the story, which is far more confused: control, social pressure, yes, but also sheer physical hunger and all the extreme things it can make you do.
Today I am able to enjoy food with my parents, my partner, my brother and my children. I look back on the anorexic years – years in which it’s always winter and it’s always dark – in horror. I couldn’t bear it if my child did that to me, and yet I know it wouldn’t be an act of aggression. It might not even be anything to do with me, but such is the power of food and feeding that I’d feel that it was.
According to smug-tastic food writer Michael Pollan, the family meal is “the nursery of democracy”:
It’s where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation.
So maybe I missed out. Maybe I never learned. But I have to say, if a family meal is all that, no wonder it’s so bloody stressful. No wonder some people might find ways to hide. Sometimes “the manners we need to get along in society” are little more than oppressive, petty compromises. I am scared of the family meal and what it stands for – even though I want to eat and to share with those I love.
We have family meals most evenings but they’re not the Family Meals I remember from childhood. The three or four of us – depending on whether Daddy is back from work – gather round the table to consume whatever it is Mummy has been able to warm up over the course of one episode of Peppa Pig (for elaborate fare, it’ll be Tree Fu Tom). My youngest will nibble a few mouthfuls before embarking on his usual series of attention-seeking toilet visits (starting with pretend wees and culminating in “Mummy, I NEED you to WIPE MY BOTTOM!” mid-dessert). Meanwhile, my eldest will clean his plate, all the while hopping on and off his chair, despite repeated requests for him to sit still. Inevitably, Eldest will make himself feel sick and require quiet, post-meal “recovery time” . By this time his brother will be emptying the fridge, hunting for random morsels – slices of ham, pieces of cheese – to make up for the fact that he’s spent most of the actual mealtime in the bathroom. Suffice it to say, a family meal chez nous is not a fucking Bisto advert. But who cares? It’s only food. And it’s still time spent together, more or less.
Alas, it’s not good enough for some.
Whenever I read about the importance of Family Meals – whether it’s in twee “Our Family Night” advertising campaigns or in foodie idealisations of a pre-feminist past – I worry. There seems to be so much misremembering, so much wilful distortion, so much indulgence of middle-class white bread stereotypes. Are family meals a genuine coming together of equals or a ritual that honours the patriarch? Do they really take “just a little effort” to achieve, especially when money is tight and shift patterns are unreliable? Is it still a family meal if one parent isn’t present? What about no parent present? Does the food have to be cooked from scratch? How “processed” is “too processed”? In short, how many ways can a family – and more specifically, a mother – still be considered a failure for not serving the evening meal correctly?
The sexism in all this seems to me pretty obvious. Pollan has already claimed some feminists “trampled over” the appreciation of good cooking “in their rush to get women out of the kitchen”. He denies that his views are regressive, claiming to have “come to think cooking is too important to be left to any one gender or member of the family” (one presumes that if cooking was irrelevant, the ladies could have it to themselves). One foodie website argues that “many of the superstars in the food movement are males: Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver come to mind immediately”, but surely this in itself is a problem. Wealthy white males are advising us on how to eat and drink in a culturally acceptable, morally pure way – yet a prerequisite for this has to be for them to examine their own privilege. Pontificating over what one should do in an ideal world is not enough. Right here, right now, domestic politics – questions not just about who does the work, but about who might dominate physically, emotionally and financially – shape what goes on at the dinner table. To ignore this seems to me at best naïve, and at worst entitled and uncaring.
I do care about what my children eat and the ethics of how it was produced. Tonight we ate spag bol out of a tin but we’re growing our own cucumbers. Hey, we’re trying. Eventually – especially if we get more time, which essentially means more money – we’ll do better. But in the meantime I wish this moralizing would stop. It’s enough to make anyone want to retreat into microwave meals alone.