By Tracy Grossmann

It was at the beginning of this school year that I picked up the Autobiography of Ben Franklin. My husband has long been a fan of biographies, and I have provided them in a steady stream to my kid-readers, who also love them. I, however, have rarely read biographies (in fact, I can’t remember more than I can count on one hand, I’m sorry to say!) Anyway, I was fascinated to find this little gem of wisdom sitting snugly in the first chapter, where Franklin  discusses his early years growing up. In this quote, he is speaking of his father, who had 17 children altogether (13 of whom Franklin remembers sitting around the table at once).

“At his table he liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed, in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior to this or that other thing of the kind, so that I was bro’t up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it, that to this day if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon. This has been a convenience to me in traveling, where my companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites.” – Ben Franklin

(from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin)

The conversation was so intriguing, it completely overshadowed the food on the table.

When our sons were 6 and 4, we spent a few months in Southeast Asia. There, they preferred to eat the meals cooked by the locals to the food made by us (which, for want of normal ingredients and cooking utensils, were blandly-replicated American comfort foods). The local food was flavorful and masterfully, if simply, prepared. It was spicy and filled with unknown meats and veggies that were unrecognizable (bamboo shoots? Not a normal delicacy on my table…)

But the kids loved the friendly smiles, the welcoming nod toward the table, the short stools they used for chairs, and the open fire where the meals were cooked to smoky perfection. They loved running with the local boys and digging up crickets, and were fascinated to watch the native mom prepare and cook their bounty.

Yes, you read that right. They dug and ate crickets. At one point, my four year old ran up to me with half a cricket in his chubby little hand, overflowing with excitement “Mom! You have GOT to try these! They taste just like french fries!!”

Of course, I was…full (ahem)...and, instead of trying the imitation french fry, simply smiled at him encouragingly.

When we got home, back to normal American fare, we included some of these native dishes (not the crickets, of course) in our normal meal rotation. Along the way we have started adding other foreign dishes, changing things, trying things, enjoying the experience as a family.

It was almost comical when they would suddenly decide they didn’t like certain foods.

“Oh, I don’t really like to eat ketchup.”

Really? It’s hard to convince your mom that you don’t like certain foods once she has seen you eating insects in the jungle. “No. You like ketchup. Don’t say strange things,” we would chuckle in reply.

We have thought a lot, as our kids have gotten older and bigger and increased in number, about this strange phenomenon, and about how we interact with our food as a society. Why, for instance, did our kids not only tolerate, but prefer the native food when we were overseas? Why do they love German night with sour kraut and kielbasa and other completely grown-up food?

When I read this little passage from Franklin’s biography, I think it hit on something that I have felt for awhile now.

A meal, at its best, is not really about the food. Or, at least, the food should be secondary

A meal is about restoration, relationship, relaxation, and renewal. It is a conversation, a reason to come together, to appreciate and enjoy the company of one another.

When we focus too much on the food, when we let it become only about the food and whether or not someone has taken three bites and were they big enough, we miss the point of the whole get-together.

Don’t get me wrong- we do love good food in our house. We can appreciate great meals and do prefer toasted over burned bread, but in the end, we sit down because we are having a meal together (the together part being more important than the meal part).

Overseas, I think their preference for the local food was more about the enjoyment of the company- the warm smiles, the friendly companionship, the cool short table, the open fire, the time running with friends…the fact that the food actually tasted good was just a bonus. They found out it tasted good because they were just eating- that’s what everyone was doing.

At home, their love of German food could easily be because of their dad’s contagious goofiness over shredding cabbage to make his own sour kraut, or the German folk music he plays while preparing and serving the meal. The atmosphere seems to take you somewhere else, where you enter into an experience to be enjoyed.

We have little kids who have never been overseas, but still love the dinners where we play Thai music and sit cross-legged around the coffee table, eating from a few family-style dishes. Though we are far from the open-fire, the change of atmosphere makes it enjoyable for everyone.

Too often I see families who don’t look forward to meal times at all. They are locked in battles over food with their kids- and they see only two choices- engage in the battle, stand their ground, and make supper into a war of wills, or retreat, and cook four separate meals.

But what if we do something completely different? What if we make dinner about more than calorie consumption? Sure, we can name our dishes well, but that is not the only weapon in our culinary arsenal. We also have laughter, lighting, location, long conversations, and music that we can bring onto the field. And let’s be honest- our kids are not the only ones in need of restoration at meal times. What if a meal was able (and intended) to fill our soul as well as our stomach?

What if we started to look at dinner time less as a battlefield and more of an opportunity? What if it is about great conversation, where you, like Franklin’s father,  mine the depths of the true, the good, and the beautiful? Maybe our meal plans should include not only protein/veggies/grain but also things like special lighting or music selections, or changes of scenery, or thoughtful questions to ponder over as a family. I wonder- would that fundamentally change the feel of our meals?

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