Looking back, there were definitely hints that the family table of my childhood was something special, but at the time I figured everyone must have dinners pretty much like ours: all of us sitting down together for a home-cooked meal at 6 p.m. sharp, everybody serving themselves from the same pot or platter, taking turns telling about the day at school, joking around, and, sure, occasionally tormenting a younger sibling for sport. I don’t want to sound sentimental about it — sweetness and light were not always the rule. The four of us bickered a lot. My father, who endured a two-hour daily commute on the Long Island Expressway, sometimes didn’t get home until the dishes were done, so the Pollan family table was often a matriarchy. And with three sisters, the table talk tended to bog down on the relative charms of the various Monkees and their haircuts rather more than I, the only boy, would have liked.
But as most kids probably feel about the household they grew up in, whatever it is must be what’s normal. Right?
Well, yes and no. It is true that back in the ’60s and ’70s, the institution of the family dinner in America was considerably more robust than it is now — when it has become the exception in many households rather than the rule. Fast-food franchises had begun to colonize suburban roadsides, but visits to these places, which we cherished, were emphatically special occasions. (Compare that to today, when one of every three American children will visit a fast-food restaurant on any given day.) In our house, the idea of a frozen dinner, or take-out, or eating in front of the TV (another rare treat) was entertained only on weekend nights when my parents went out. In the sixties, the average American was still spending more than an hour a day preparing food, a figure that has since fallen by more than half — to 27 minutes a day.
So it was a much different world, but already in those days, signs of the changes to come were in the air. Most nights there were at least one or two young guests at our table, usually friends of ours whose mothers worked and seldom cooked. (My mother went back to work when I was in high school, but even then preparing a family dinner remained a priority.) These guests were always grateful for my mom’s cooking, and when we stopped to think about it, this made us appreciate just how good we had it. But there were also kids who came to dinner at our house as often as they could just because my mom’s cooking was so incredible. Our friends would come over after school (the horrible word “playdate” had not yet been coined, since no one ever thought to plan these things, they just happened) and linger long enough into the afternoon to be invited to stay for dinner. They invariably ate like refugees.
My best friend, Dan, was a pale, skinny latchkey kid whose own mother never, ever cooked and seemed to regard the family meal as an anthropological curiosity. There was a period when Dan ate dinner at our house more nights than not, much to the consternation of my sisters, who felt he consumed not only too much food, but too much attention as well. One of my sisters eventually declared Dan was “ruining our family” and that if he didn’t stop coming to dinner every night, she would. So Dan lay low for a while, and the boycott was averted, but eventually he drifted back to our table, doing his best to keep quiet and attract less notice. But he never failed to extravagantly thank my mother, whom he called (and still calls) “Mrs. Pollan,” for the delicious dinner. No one appreciated her cooking more than Dan.
Since those days, the Pollan family table has branched into five family tables, as each of us kids has carried the traditions forward into our own homes.
The four of us routinely consult one another — and Corky, our mother — about meals, exchange recipes, and compare notes on culinary hits and misses. And when the whole 21-person, three-generation family gathers on certain weekends and the big holidays, we invariably cook together. In the week before such a gathering, the email traffic is heavy as we decide what to make and who will do what. Corky is nominally in charge, but she’s raised an opinionated bunch of chefs who all weigh in with ideas and seasoning suggestions. And our kids, “the cousins,” are always very much in the mix, mashing potatoes, slicing apples for a pie, mixing up big bowls of whipped cream. This is how the everyday habits of home cooking get passed down, one generation to another.
If any of us took my mother’s table for granted when we were growing up, none of us does now. The world has changed in ways that make family dinner something that is no longer a given but that must be achieved, often against great odds. The American household is a very different place today. In 60 percent of American families, both parents work at jobs; in many other families, there is only one parent. Our kids’ after-school schedules have never been busier, and their homework load has never been heavier.
Something had to give, and in many homes what gave was sitting down to a home-cooked family meal.
The food industry has been only too happy to accommodate our busyness with a cornucopia of what it aptly calls “home-meal replacements” — frozen microwaveable entrées simulating every cuisine known to civilization, and appealing to every demographic in the household. At the same time, the supermarket has gone from just selling food to cooking it for us too, offering a panoply of take-out options from rotisserie chicken to sandwiches. (A sandwich is the most popular meal in America today, both at lunch and dinner.) And then there are always the restaurants — fast food, fast casual, and fine dining. Never in history has it been easier, or more tempting, not to cook.
But even those of us who have trouble finding the time to put a real dinner on the table have come to realize what is lost when we don’t do it. It is no coincidence that the rise in obesity in America closely tracks the decline in home cooking. Why?
Because corporations don’t cook as well as humans do (something implicitly acknowledged when we refer to what they do as “food processing” rather than “cooking”). They use the cheapest possible raw ingredients, which they render appealing by adding far more salt, fat, and sugar than a human ever would. Then, to disguise the fact their dishes have been prepared so far away and long ago, they add lots of novel chemicals no human keeps in his or her pantry: stabilizers, preservatives, texturizers, emulsifiers, artificial flavors, and colors. Industrial corporations are also adept at making certain labor-intensive special-occasion foods — such as french fries or dessert — so inexpensive and ubiquitous that we eat these foods far more often than we would if someone had to actually cook or bake them. My mom occasionally made homemade french fries, and they were fabulous, but they were such a pain to make (and such a mess to clean up!) that she didn’t do it every day — more like once a month.
The practical realities of daily home cooking and cleaning encourage us to use the best ingredients we can afford and then prepare them as simply as possible — right there, a pretty good recipe for healthy eating.
So it’s almost impossible to eat a healthy meal when industry is doing the cooking. But there are other, subtler problems with industrial eating. Those home-meal replacements? They’re not designed to feed a family, just an individual, with the result that each member of the family winds up eating something different, turning the home into a kind of restaurant. I have no research to back this claim, but I’m convinced that when people eat from the same pot or platter, they share something more than the food. Eating the same meal helps put everyone on the same emotional page. Also, the single-serving portions undermine the ability of a family to sit down at the same time, since each of them needs to be microwaved separately, one after another. “Family dinner” in these homes begins to fragment, and before long each member of the family is eating different things at different times. Solitary eating in front of the television or computer soon follows.
The loss of that common experience of eating a meal together is far reaching. This is going to sound like a big claim to make for something as simple as family dinner, but I believe that institution is essential not only to a family’s health and well-being but also to our society as a whole. Because at the dinner table we literally civilize our children, teaching them how to take turns, to share, to listen to other people’s point of view, and to argue without insulting.
The family meal is the nursery of democracy.
Now, it’s one thing to recognize the importance of this daily practice, and quite another to actually do it — to get a home-cooked meal on the table more nights than not. That’s where I think you’re going to find The Pollan Family Table immediately helpful and, in time, essential. My mother and sisters are not only superb cooks but also eminently practical women who face the same challenges most people do — busy schedules, kids with too much homework, picky eaters, etc. — and have figured out how to put beautiful meals on the table most nights of the week. I know this firsthand, because I’ve enjoyed their cooking for years, and have cooked many of these recipes myself.
In some cases, these are the dishes we loved as kids — don’t miss the Speedy Skillet Beef with Peppers and Pineapple (page 63) or the Mashed Potato Casserole with Spinach, Carrots, and Gruyère (page 234) — midweek standbys that have never lost their appeal, especially to kids. But my sisters and mother all live in Manhattan, and have soaked up the city’s vibrant food and farmers’ market scene, which has broadened and enlivened their repertoire. I’m thinking especially of the Jalapeño, Pork, and Hominy Chili (page 182), the Halibut Puttanesca en Papillote (page 100), and the Citrus-Roasted Chicken with Grand Marnier (page 29). Here you’ll find modern American cuisine at its very best, and exactly the dish to try when your family’s bored with dinner and you’ve run out of ideas.
My mother and sisters are not professional cooks, and this, oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly), probably explains why this eminently practical cookbook really works. Because most of us aren’t professional cooks either.
They never lose sight of the few core principles that set this cookbook apart: All the dishes can be made with ingredients available at any American supermarket; most can be put on the table in less than an hour (some in half that time); the recipes take nothing for granted and never assume lots of prior experience in the kitchen; and they all appeal equally to kids and adults.
This last principle strikes me as particularly important today. The rise of a distinct “kids’ cuisine” — chicken nuggets and their ilk — is a particularly insidious development, one that food marketers have worked hard to promote. (No wonder: They sell us more food when each member of the family is eating something different.)
But it’s a trap for parents, complicating the cooking of family meals and undermining the virtues of sharing while stunting the development of kids’ taste for real, grown-up food.
To my mind, one of the best things about this book is that it marks out a broad and delicious common ground, offering a great many dishes you will discover that both adults and children will be able to enjoy equally — and together. Feeding our children well is one of the pillars of good parenting, and that pillar today is tottering. Many of us have come to feel powerless before the forces — of modern life, of food marketing — that are undermining our ability to put a home-cooked meal on the table. We’re losing control of our family’s eating, ceding it to companies that have insinuated themselves into what once was, and needs to again become, a family affair. More than anything else, I think you will find that The Pollan Family Table is an empowering book.
Rather than argue for the importance of family meals — something you already know, or you probably wouldn’t have picked it up — it will, one practical step at a time, help you to make them a nightly reality, straightforward to prepare, and delicious to enjoy together.
Excerpted from The Pollan Family Table: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom for Delicious, Healthy Family Meals by Corky, Lori, Dana and Tracy Pollan, with a foreword by Michael Pollan. Published on October 28, 2014 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.