It was sixth grade. I was seated at my usual place in the front row of class as our elementary French lesson began. Ms. Reynolds, our charismatic French teacher, dance team instructor and cheerleader for the Washington Wizards, opened the conversation with a question: “What did you eat for dinner last night?” The responses were shocking.
My best friend admitted, with shame, that she had eaten cookies for dinner. Several more said McDonald’s, Checkers, Burger King. Another classmate had oodles of noodles for dinner. A few others mentioned different meals of varying nutrition and then it was my turn. I announced my meal: broiled salmon, yellow rice and green beans, not from a can.
With my announcement came a flurry of different emotions and thoughts. I had always criticized my mother for her bad cooking, but clearly she was doing something for my classmates to envy. I had eaten a protein, starch and green vegetable; a dinner balanced in nutrients and diverse in color. And perhaps most importantly, my dinner was a meal – a real meal eaten on china at the kitchen table and eaten with family and conversation.
I had found a cause. Or, maybe it was more of an effect.
After our classroom conversation I began to observe how different my home life was from that of my peers. My best friend, who had eaten only cookies for dinner, would constantly complain of empty cabinets at home. When I went to visit the house of the classmate who had eaten oodles of noodles, I discovered that she was a latchkey kid who, at 9-years-old, came home to an empty house each evening to make dinner for herself. Pot noodles and kool-aid were all she was capable of making.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom and I could count on her to be home every evening focusing on dinner. She was no chef, but she would always try to find solutions for my sister’s pescetarianism, limit our salt intake to not disrupt my father’s high blood pressure and insist upon a green vegetable.
And so I intensified my culinary studies so I could teach my mother more cooking skills that would keep the good meals coming. But I also held on tighter to the communion shared with my family at mealtime and the implications therein. As the father featured on this season’s Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution realized, after converting from a lifestyle dominated by fast food, “If [my boys] have an issue they know there is going to be a time at dinner when they can bring it up.” Necessarily scheduled at regular intervals, food is brought to mean so much more than its nutritional and aesthetic elements. Too many people ignore this.
That French lesson truly opened my eyes to understand food as an organizing principle that connects so many aspects of our humanity. The concept of a real dinner will always stick with me. And I will devote myself to promoting it.