Conversations that trigger a memory of one’s upbringing and how it has influenced or impacted our lives often yield two reactions – we marvel at the freedom some people had or we are astonished by the discipline enforced.
Last weekend, some friends and I were chatting about the rituals of dining in our homes whilst growing up. One friend remarked about the easy-going nature of meal times at her house and boasted that they all had individual television dining tables! Another talked about how the entire family shared the chores, from setting the table to drying and putting away the dishes. And yet another friend commented about having to stay at the table long after she’d completed her meal because others were still eating. I immediately related to this last comment, as it was something I experienced too!
Back then I deeply resented having to stay at the table whilst my brother and sister or parents finished eating.
Often there was a book that I wanted to get back to, but it would have to wait. I suffered in silence while others talked about things I was not particularly interested in and lingered over their food and drinks. I used to be even more vexed because all this loitering around the table stopped me from zipping through my kitchen chores. I couldn’t get started until they were finished.
Thankfully, as we got older, my mom would allow us to leave the table as long as we asked permission to do so, we’d say, “May I please be excused?” or “Can I be excused?” Once permission was granted, we’d remove our plates, cutlery and whatever else we’d used.
There were other dining rules we had to endure that, at the time seemed arbitrary. For example, when we were young and small our feet dangled off our chairs; we couldn’t quite touch the ground. But heaven forbid if we ever shook those dangling feet – we’d get scolded immediately. No shaking of the feet at the table allowed! The television was always turned off at meal times reinforcing the need to focus on the meal and not be distracted. We also had to chew properly, not just chew once, twice and then swallow, we were told to chew slowly to enjoy and taste the food.
Careful chewing, we were advised, also meant that the food would be easier to digest.
While there were no hard or fast rules about drinking while eating, mommy preferred that we drink only at the end of the meal. The reason she gave was that if we drank a lot of liquid during our meal, we’d fill ourselves up with the juice or water and then we’d be unable to complete our meals. To date, whenever I eat, I have to force myself not to touch the juice or water in front of me during my meal.
As I think back on some of these things that I once thought of as being oppressive, I am aware, in many ways, that there are traits and things I will always practise. For example, I very rarely sit down to eat without a tablemat or a napkin.
Nevertheless, there are some ways in which I have strayed from my early upbringing. These days, unless I am entertaining, I eat alone and eighty percent of the time, I sit on a large oversized cushion on the floor, balancing a tray on my lap with my meal, napkin, cutlery and beverage, in front of the television. It’s not that I am rebelling after all those years of having to adhere to the dining practices enforced by my parents, it’s more about the freedom to do as I please, after all, it’s just me!
There are times that I’ll stare guiltily at the polished dining table, spotless and inviting, and make promises as I caress the surface that I’ll sit at the table more often to have my meal. I mean, what is the point of having a dining table if you’re not going to use it? Right? But I often break those promises and curse myself for doing so if the tray or plate on my lap tilts and spills my food or drink. Gosh I can hear that voice in my head, “You hard ears! Eat at the table!”
Where and how do you eat these days? Are your present-day dining practices influenced by any of those you had while growing up?