My parents must have been cruel. Or so it seemed. They made us eat liver. I did not like liver then. When we did not like things they served, they told us stories about the starving children in Korea. It was the fifties. There had been a war and a lot of suffering. Of course, we figured that one out quickly. Kids are smart. We knew they could not send any food there in time. It would spoil. My parents had another line: the boy who would not eat his oatmeal for breakfast. So his parents served it to him at lunch. He wouldn’t eat it then. So they brought it back out for supper. Well, the thought of liver for breakfast was enough to put the kibosh on any complaint session. Anyway, that was the fifties. What could my parents do? I don’t blame them. We didn’t have color TV to run to. It’s better now. We have iPhones!

Yes, in the 2020s parents can ask their kids what they would like for dinner. Then they can call in for deliveries. Anyone can order what they want. Pizza, fried chicken, mac n’ cheese, Dunkin’ or burgers on demand. Fast. Then time to run back to the computer games (or whatever).

What is the difference between these two narratives? As long as a family is home, or at least in the house, all are safe. The first is cheaper, but the second seems simpler. Seemingly. And in the end, everyone is fed. A case could be made for the first case that the meal was healthier. More iron, at least. Less fat. But aren’t we all better off now, without all the hassle?

Well, the hassle is what I remember best sometimes. And, no, I don’t think my parents were cruel. They had more in mind than just feeding us well. They were not rich. Sometimes meals of liver, stew or leftovers like turkey hash were better options for feeding five (eventually seven as we expanded). There was something there, however, that is often missed when everyone has a screen in their hand (or in their room): conversation.

Yes, the conversations could be spiky at times and far from harmonious. Occasionally, a phone would ring and one of my parents would answer, but usually to say, “we are eating right now, and I will call you back when we are finished.” Six o’clock or so was always a point of reference that defined the meaning of home. It was the family meal.

It was not always ideal. When my dad was in Brooklyn Law School, we got our taste of what it was like not to have dad at dinner on many weekday nights. My mom did her best to manage us and keep the conversation going about what happened at school that day. Homework usually started before dinner, but often continued after, so the mealtimes were not long. Rarely more than a half hour or 45 minutes. But we talked. We listened. We had real face time. 

Sometimes guests came. On Sundays we often had supper at my grandparents’ home, a few blocks away. That could be theater! Especially on days when uncles, aunts and cousins joined in. Many of us enjoy similar gatherings, even if fewer and farther between. What I am getting at is, how healthy are family meals — and I don’t mean just their nutritive value!

Let me pose a question: What do you remember talking about at your last family meal? Can you remember a family meal? Was there any conversation? I do not want to trigger here any hard feelings. Sadly, many people eat alone or in silence, and not by choice or preference. 

It’s a funny thing. In my student days in Italy, when I was a seminarian (1969-74), it was extremely rare when, even in a restaurant, Italians would eat in groups of only two or three. A meal of one was unheard of. And meals were long, rarely less than an hour, often much longer. I remember, when I returned to Italy, after being away for almost 20 years, how this had changed. I was really surprised to see a woman, at times, eating alone. Solo eating is still considered a great misfortune in cultures on many continents. Even today, I was recently musing with friends that it is rare to see someone in France or Italy, for example, carrying a paper cup or some food item in the street, eating and drinking as they walk. When you eat, you sit down. With people!

Back to my question. Do we have real conversations anymore at home, at meals? Yes, there is texting. There are phone calls, one to one. And there are Zooms. Endless virtual sessions where (let’s be honest), we don’t even have to put shoes on or get out of our pajama bottoms. Plus, we can multitask, do a crossword or even text someone else while a Zoom partner is talking. Not to be judgmental, but where is the focus? So easy to get absorbed in oneself. Not good.

Those of us who attended any of the synod sessions that we were doing around the Diocese seem to have so much appreciated the opportunity to sit around a table with others, folks of all ages, to lean in and actually to have a conversation that so often seems to be more of a luxury these days. We have to do more of this, and I think we all learned that this is something we can continue to do to enrich our parish life.

Speaking of which, does it seem that there might be a connection between a family that can share a meal together, at least a few times a week, and the ease with which attendance at Mass can flow from the experience? It wasn’t often that our family could attend Mass together, especially when some of the children were very young or not everyone was well. But I think the experience of our family meals offered a kind of template that made attendance with our church family seem more natural.

Jesus himself often showed up at meals and made the distribution and sharing of food a means of reinforcing his message that he had come to bring us life and life to the full and that this life was an act of sharing himself, as he invites us to do with one another. Eating together is a great way for friends to enjoy one another’s company and conversation. It is so much more than just “chowing down” or fast-fooding it. 

Some parishes hold picnics in the warmer weather. In Brooklyn we often staged “block parties.” An interesting exercise might be to encourage one another to make family meals a priority, especially after the summer break when, God willing, most of us are finding some time for recreation with family and friends. Our residences for seniors and those in need of assisted living make extraordinary efforts to set a familial tone at mealtimes. Being together at the table and having conversation is, indeed, a big part of what it means to be human. It is, after all, the setting that Our Lord himself chose to be remembered in. Can we go wrong by following his example?
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