Kari Jenson Gold on the Dinner Table as Meeting Place
My friends pour over parenting manuals and devour advice that will guarantee health and happiness for their children. My daughter’s school sponsors parenting lectures and parent discussion groups covering every conceivable issue, and the media feed the frenzy, delighting in the risks and dangers even the most secure children face.
In the space of two weeks, both the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker carried lengthy pieces about the battle over school lunches. Parents wage war over fat and sugar levels in the cafeteria, and the latest statistics only fuel the anxiety. According to the Times, the obesity rate among adolescents has tripled since 1980, and it is predicted that 40 percent of our children will contract diabetes. Eating disorders are on the rise.
It is all a bit overwhelming and sometimes remarkably silly, but I confess that I, too, read the reports and attend the lectures. And I have, in the last year, repeatedly heard one rather astonishing finding: There appear to be two decisive factors for predicting whether a child will do well in school and avoid early sexual activity or drug and alcohol abuse. They are: (1) participating in a religious life, and (2) eating dinner with the family.
In the lectures and discussion groups I have attended, these are invariably dismissed as two separate, unrelated activities. For many parents (bear in mind that I live in Manhattan), the notion of a religious life is, if not laughable, simply irrelevant.
Most will glide quickly past religion and focus instead on the need to eat dinner together. From there, it is only a matter of time before someone will venture that it’s not really about eating. Surely what’s prescribed is simply “quality time.” Whereupon there is a general nodding of heads and everyone departs feeling much reassured.
That there could be any possible connection between religious life and family dinner never seems to occur to anyone. And yet, as a practicing Christian, I find the connection glaringly obvious. The central event of the Christian life is the Eucharist. The central event of family life is or should be the family dinner.
When, as a congregation, we share the bread and the wine, we are one in Christ. When, as a family, we eat pasta together, we are united.
Burkhard Bilger, the author of the New Yorker piece, waxes nostalgic over his school lunches in France. “We sat at round tables in groups of eight and were served three courses of some of the strangest food I’d ever seen—sautéed squid, boudin noir, rabbit with mustard sauce.” The article makes much of the sorts of foods served, as indeed it should. But a crucial point is overlooked.
Kari Jenson Gold is a writer and an actress who has appeared off-Broadway and in regional theater. Her children's books are used in elementary schools, and her essays have appeared in First Things. She attends Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue and lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and dog.
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