Straight Talk – Breaking Bread
Written by Stella Nicholls
When I was a child, my dad was pedantic about us laying the table correctly before we ate. I’m not talking fancy silverware and countless knives and forks here but there was a certain quirkiness to his request at our evening meals. We always needed bread and lots of it, all buttered and sliced ready. Not a crispy little sourdough number either which you may have been served at a restaurant; just plain old unapologetic sliced brown bread (known as a Government Loaf in South Africa). I remember cutting the slices in half, as per his request so that you couldn’t just grab a whole slice of buttered bread; you would need to make do with half a slice at a time. Pace yourself.
I thought eating lots of bread with my meal was normal, along with the slightly too weak or too strong orange squash that us kids had prepared – to wash it all down.
Once we sat down to eat, woe betides anyone who started before we were all seated and had said ‘grace’. It was only when I reached my questioning teenage years and had been to other friends’ homes for meals (minus the man-made bread mountains) that I started querying the eating of bread with our evening meal. When I asked my mum about the bread ‘saga’, she explained to me that my dad had been born just after the Second World War and was one of eleven children. Mealtimes for him as a child were a ‘snatch and grab’ affair with some of his siblings not getting any of the meagre portions if they weren’t quick. Times were hard and so his mum filled them up on bread. Bread was a staple addition to their evening meal so that they could plump up their portions and fill their hungry tummies.
It explained a lot; certainly why my dad would not allow us all to eat before he had given the go- ahead. He had replaced the ‘feeding frenzy’ of his childhood with a more orderly mealtime but not the bread, the bread remained. Despite the more frugal times that my dad faced as a child growing up, it struck me that his family still ate their meals together around a table.
Now, while my food intolerances and waistline no longer let me get away with eating loads of bread with my evening meal, one example I would like to follow from my childhood is eating together. There’s something very special, about sitting around a table and eating with family and friends, ‘breaking bread’ together and having that chance to communicate around a table. It creates a sense of community that is often lost in our fast-paced world.
That being said, I’m a little ashamed to admit that my childhood training of ‘laying the table’ every night hasn’t carried through into my adult years. My dining room table usually doubles up as a gaming station, a laundry or an office and we hardly ever sit down and share a meal over it. In fact, once I’ve cooked, I normally eat alone, with my food on my lap, watching the TV. In our overscheduled lives, often no one else has arrived home by the time the meal is ready, so their food needs to stay covered, ready to be reheated in the microwave when they come in. What a shame!
On doing a little research, I found that studies show that families who eat together are twice as likely to eat their ‘five-a-day’, children tend to have a more varied diet and through the bonding that takes place over a meal, develop higher self-esteem. Who knew? It even goes so far to say that eating together creates the opportunity for parents to become role models, helps prevent obesity and children have a lower chance of engaging in high risk behaviours, such as substance abuse. The ‘dinner table’ can act as a unifier, a place of community, even a safe place that encourages communication.
My children are grown now and when they were little, we didn’t have the traditional family unit for long, (having lost their dad at a young age) and also, I didn’t realise the importance of sitting down with them to eat. But I’m eternally grateful that my parents, my dad especially – still made dinner time ‘a thing’ for them (I moved back in with my parents after my husband was killed). Little did I know, at the time, that those meal times would play such an important part in their lives, so much so, that my daughter still remembers and talks about the meals we shared with my parents, even remembering specifics around what we ate (it wasn’t bread!).
Sitting down to a meal together, also allows us to celebrate the food we are eating. It creates a special occasion that perhaps would help me (and others like me) to develop a healthier outlook on food and the joy it brings, rather than it just being the means to gain a nutrient.
I’ve watched many cooking shows, where the judge has said, ‘This food was prepared with the love it deserved’ and I’ve often wondered what that really means. Surely cooking something doesn’t equate to love? But in the concept of meal times together, I guess a lovingly and carefully prepared meal could be translated into happy family bonding time. A ‘no phone zone’, time to eat, enjoy, make eye contact and talk! Fancy that!
Taking it even further, meal times together could also create a ‘buttress’ or ‘laager’ of defence against outside pressures. (A ‘laager’ is a temporary wagon fort used by the Dutch Settlers in South Africa, where wagons were pulled around into a circle as a defence against wild animals and raiders). Taking time out to eat together could act like a circle of safety for our families. A place where we get to talk about life in general, and the world as we know it. A place to ‘let off steam’ if it’s been one of those days.
My hubby and I eat together around once a week, on our date night. I think we should try and up our game, even if the only reason is that while we’re eating and chatting to each other, we aren’t answering emails or engaged online in our social media ‘sanctuaries’. Undivided attention – I like.
It struck me while writing this that all those years of breaking (buttering) bread together and eating with my parents, got me through a lot of tough times over the years. Thanks, dad!