When my daughter was an infant, I would spend her naps watching a show on one of our nondescript and ever-changing digital TV channels, one that I came to think of as “the first cooking show.” I don’t know that it really was the first, nor do I remember the name of it, but it was from the 1950s and the host was an older woman who was a clear master of domestic arts. I assume this was filmed before Julia Child’s show came on the scene, although I really didn’t pay attention to the copyright dates and have no idea if this is true. In any case, the host did not have Julia’s jocularity or cheerful acceptance of minor imperfection—there really was no imperfection, and in each episode she made complete menus including fussy hors d’oeuvres, glistening aspics, and complicated desserts requiring various molds, pastry tips, and garnishes. I imagined young housewives in lace aprons tuning into this show in the morning, taking careful notes, and spending the rest of the day preparing whatever menu this chef had presented. The way I’ve described the whole thing may sound terribly oppressive and perhaps even depressing, but what can I say, I adored it. Nothing brightened my day during that time period like imagining the time when I, too, would spend my afternoons piping filling into strange shrimpy hors d’oeuvres and polishing my collection of baroque copper jello molds.
I have long been enamored of the accoutrements of the formal table. China, crystal, flatware of varying types, serving pieces, and linens—oh, the linens—to have a chest whose only purpose is to hold them. I’ve been an unabashed fan of Martha Stewart since I was a child, and, as a child, I figured that adults could pretty much choose to just live like she did—maybe not so much the rich part, but the intentional part, the treating life as art part, the setting a nice table and using cloth napkins and a tablecloth part. That is what I once thought, and it may to some extent be true, but this is what I have found: once you are an adult, and you have a choice, sometimes it seems pointless to set a table. Daily routines don’t seem quite so fresh and exciting, and the living life as art part, the intentional part, is easily procrastinated for another day.
Currently, dinners at our house go like this: the cooking is haphazard, done by me (because in theory I like cooking, although I’m not sure what I’m about to describe is the thing I claim to enjoy) and involves figuring out something that everyone will eat (I am vegetarian. My daughter no longer likes chicken. My husband prefers there be chicken. The two toddlers will generally still eat mostly everything, as long as it’s on someone else’s plate. We all have complex and opposing opinions about vegetables and how they should be prepared). There is a relatable passage in Shirley Jackson’s memoir, Raising Demons, in which the author goes to great lengths to find a fancy new casserole recipe to spruce up her family’s dinner, only to find herself eliminating all of the ingredients that individual members don’t like. This effort results in a casserole dish of plain hamburger dotted with cashews (which are of course, picked off and left untouched on the plates). That passage was written almost seventy years ago, but it still applies– I have a limited repertoire of dinner choices that everyone will begrudgingly eat, and any new ones, no matter how hopefully torn from a magazine or pinned to a Pinterest board, inevitably require omissions and substitutions. Once I’ve decided on one, I go tripping about my (never fully clean) kitchen, which, I am realizing, has absolutely no flow, in a race against someone showing up and wanting a snack, or someone having the gall to ask what it is we’re going eat, or someone stealing bits and pieces of all of the ingredients to mash into a paste that is then dispersed among four previously clean bowls.
Once the smoke detector goes off for the second time, everyone heads to the table, but the meal can’t begin yet as the chairs have to be dragged in from another room, where they are hidden from the toddlers because they think all furniture is training equipment for their future appearances on Ninja Warrior. Lately, I’ve taken to standing and eating, because if I sit, both boys immediately climb out of their highchairs and into my lap, where they fight over my fork and eat whatever is on my plate while theirs grows cold. My daughter typically takes three bites of whatever is on offer and manages to disappear to watch cartoons before anyone can protest. On a few lucky nights the boys follow her, and I can sneak into her chair. Then my husband and I dine in a sort of tense peace for a few moments, not daring to remind the children of our presence by speaking. The act of eating dinner never, ever, not even on Thanksgiving Day, takes more than 10 minutes to complete. Needless to say, there is no tablecloth, the use of cloth napkins is few and far between, and I’ve traded in the china for enamelware.
I introduce this scenario as if it is the reason that I’ve abandoned any effort to engage with the rituals and accoutrements of fine dining—but the rambunctious, picky family is only a small part of it. The larger part is me. I am a person who tends to get lost and overwhelmed by the big picture and has a fixation on the finished product. Details are often glossed as I rush to see how the whole thing is going to turn out. Dinner frustrates me because the goal is ambiguous—is it when the food is made and ready to be served and the table set? Is it when everyone is sitting and eating? Is it when no one is hungry anymore, or when the dishes are washed and the floor swept? Frankly, at this stage of life, it seems like the goal is pretty much that the whole thing is over. It all boils down to this…no matter how carefully I set the dinner table, it will be a shambles in five minutes. And in the scheme of things, what is the point? On uncertain, wobbly days when the world seems as chaotic and misused as my dinner table, I find it hard to convince myself that there is one. After all, what goal, what finished product can I see? And do I even want to glimpse it?
But still. I have not let go of the accoutrements and rituals yet. I keep a few in a locked cupboard and the rest in my mind, hoping for a better day to get them out. And in the meantime, I look at the messy kitchen, the dishes in the sink, the guilt-inducing number of used paper towels (why do children love paper towels, so? They make messes just to get a hold of them), and try to treasure this, too. We live a different dinnertime trope than the one I Iong for—but one just as valuable. This story of the rambunctious children, the picky appetites, the harried parents is an old one, and as precious as the china that would surely not last a week at our table. I take comfort in our place in repeated history, and, against type, I hope that this history will continue without an end point, that this dinner scene is just one tiny moment in an infinite cycle. Smiling wanly at my husband, I steel myself as the dinner high jinks unfold. There is no finished product, and the process is a disaster unfit for Instagram, or, God forbid, dinner guests. But as long as they are laughing, screaming, eating, and making unending messes, we are somehow still here. And as long as we’re still here, maybe tomorrow will be the day that I’ll summon the wherewithal to wipe down the table until every sticky bit is gone. Then I’ll smooth a flowered tablecloth over it, find just enough intact plates to set it, and gaze at what I’ve done before taking a deep breath and calling them in to destroy it all with life.