Dinner Isn’t “Tyranny.” It’s Just Dinner

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Both of my grandmothers were good cooks. Neither ever got to anything like a gourmet level, of course, but they had a whole lot of family-pleasing dishes down cold, particularly my father’s mom — who once gave my sister an afternoon-long tutorial on how to make chicken soup, starting with the bones to make the stock. Last winter, I had some trouble with artichokes in my pressure cooker (not the exploding kind of trouble, just the “these don’t taste like the artichokes my grandmother made” kind of trouble). A plea on Facebook got an answer from my cousin Julia, who told me exactly what our grandmother used to do — apparently, Julia got one of those afternoon-long tutorials, too. My grandmother could do magical things with peppers, potatoes, and eggs and was the kind of cook who could pull a meal together from the pantry without fretting.

My maternal grandmother, by contrast, was more of a get-the-job-done cook. She was neither adventurous nor particularly creative, and for two very good reasons. One, she had a husband who wanted pretty much the same sort of dish most nights, a minestre, a kind of one-pot vegetable, meat, and pasta soup. And two, she worked full-time. So for her, the job was this: get home from work, put the pot on the stove, and chop and add and stir until it’s done. It was all from scratch, but there was no homemaker-ly joy in it.

She did it because that’s what you do.

During the one or two weeks a year that my grandfather would go on his annual hunting trip, my grandmother would — conspiratorially with my mom, her only child — make “American food” for dinner, which meant, say, roasted chicken and potatoes and a vegetable, or a pork chop and potatoes and a vegetable, all in their different spots on the plate.

Every time I think, “Dinner is hard. Dinner takes so much time. What the f&^# are we having for dinner tonight?!” I try to think of my grandmother trudging home from work and then putting together the minestre for supper. And it’s not as though she was at a desk at work trawling the Interwebs for recipe ideas, or watching videos of the Pioneer Woman, aka Rhee Drummons making enchiladas or the Barefoot Contessa, aka Ina Garten whisking good olive oil into her vinaigrette and unwrapping the wild salmon she just picked up at that charming fish monger’s in East Hampton (two TV/blog personalities whose recipes I regularly use, FYI). Nor was she wasn’t shopping for grocery delivery via a smartphone app while commuting. Instead, she was sewing dresses in a factory. Convenience for her, in the early years, was buying the chicken already plucked, you know? No bags of shredded carrots or shrink-wrapped packages of boneless breasts.

It wasn’t hard, exactly; nor was it easy.

It just was.

Last week, an article in Slate caused a stir (sorry! Cooking pun!). Called Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner, and the upshot was that dinner is now tyranny (in fact, if you Google “The tyranny of the home cooked family dinner” you’ll hit on this same piece, so I wonder if someone changed the title to get past that pesky “tyranny” word because it’s a wee bit too Tea Party, ya know?). The article was sparked by a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, which elucidated the disconnect between, say, the deceptive ease of an Ina Garten wild-salmon meal, or the eat-real-food movement championed by people such as Michael Pollan — and real life. The difference between that fish monger in East Hampton and the bodega in the Bronx where a working single mother’s SNAP benefits buy Lunchables and Coke, and there’s no curly kale or organic chicken in site. Or where there may not even be a kitchen to cook in, for some poor families. But that’s not who the Slate article reached; that piece highlighted the pressures middle- and upper-middle-class mothers feel around making dinner: a so-called lack of time; families full of picky kids and spouses; and a frustration over not being able to create the mythically perfect family meal.

My thoughts:

  • Tyranny is kind of a big word to use. To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
  • The real problem isn’t so much the everyday-ness of the family meal that, let’s face it, someone has to make or provide; it’s the suggestion that’s arisen in the last generation or so that Family Meal means not just homemade, but homemade from scratch. It should be balanced and healthy. Nourishing not just our children’s bodies, but our own creativity. And if it’s Pinterest ready, even better.
  • Every article, book, or blog about how to make dinner easier, faster, more streamlined — 30 Minute Meals! Shop once, cook all month! Slow-cooker suppers! — while purportedly there to help, have an undertone that reads: If you can’t do even this, man, you’re really underwater. Even the simple solutions feel hard and out of our reach. You start reading that helpful, multi-page feature in, say, Real Simple, but by the time you get to the fourth mouthwatering spread and by the time you’ve perused the tear-out shopping checklist, you start to feel the despair rising. I can’t do this. This is too hard. I have failed again.

But who ever said it had to be so easy you could distill a week’s (or a month’s!) worth of meals and planning into a magazine feature? Make it seem too simple (sorry, Real Simple, I love many of your recipes and I tear them out and use them, but I skip right over the step-by-step shopping and planning advice, which for me just complicates matters), and it starts to appear hard all over again. Unless you’re Ina Garten. Who you are not.

The it’s so simple, you can do this! craze is the real tyranny, I believe.

What’s better is to just admit the truth: Dinner isn’t hard, necessarily (putting aside issues around cost and availability of ingredients). It’s just repetitive.

My mother axed the minestre from her own cooking repertoire. In the 60s and 70s when she was a newlywed and then raising my sister, brother, and me, she very much had a repertoire. Meat. Potatoes. Veg. Salad. Fruit. Nothing was elaborate; there were no special shopping trips or out-there spices. Broil pork chops and bake potatoes, saute spinach and make a salad. When she ran out of time or ideas, there was pasta with ricotta (throw a container of ricotta cheese over hot pasta with a little bit of the pasta water, top with grated grated Parmesan and you have it — Italian mac and cheese). She made lentil soup and chicken soup and beef stew.

No checklist. No tricks for the package of chicken (well, okay, she didn’t buy packages of chicken. She bought the whole bird and cut it up.). No tricks at all. Just the job. Over and over and frickin’ over.

It need not be organic. It need not be 100% from scratch. It just has to land on the plate. You can make instant rice and microwave broccoli florets, for example (I don’t to the former because I don’t care for the taste, but I do have a freezer full of frozen veggies because it’s easy). Let go of the thought that you have to try every new thing. Find what makes it simple for you and keep doing that.

Then order pizza on Fridays.

Don’t make it harder for yourself. Just do the job. Because we all gotta eat.

Oh, and P.S.: Read this take on the same subject by my friend Meagan Francis, on her excellent blog The Happiest Home. She nails it (and challenged me to share my views, too; it’s just that — even though she has five kids to feed — she beat me to it!)