An ode to family dinner. How eating together, night after night, creates a sacred space for families to flourish.
When I was in high school, my parents did a brave thing: they left their well-paying day jobs and returned to school full-time. My mother, the braniac of the family, hoped to finish her undergraduate degree. My father, looking for a career change, began graduate studies in theology. We moved cross country to Atlanta, GA and entered unfamiliar terrain together.
Our new home felt instantly different. This was not green, temperate Seattle bordered by majestic mountains and the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, we lived in a neat row of student housing, surrounded by clay-baking heat and young couples with babies and toddlers.
My mom cooked dinner nearly every night. She was a good cook and we all enjoyed her food. For me, this was a new experience. Up until our move, dinner usually meant me and my brother eating in the kitchen with Halmoni, while my parents worked late hours. We rarely saw them on the weekdays.
Now, things were different. As full-time students, my parents were usually home. My mom was a scheduled and planned person, unlike my free-spirited Halmoni. In Georgia, we ate dinner at the same time, every night. There was a routine to dinner, an ordinariness in the way we gathered and sat at the same places.
Our dinners were typically Korean. Small dishes of banchan dotted the middle of the table. At our individual places, small bowls of steaming rice sat, waiting to be consumed. Some nights, there would be squares of jiggly tofu. Other nights, stir fried potatoes with lots of black pepper and green onions. My favorite was my mom’s spicy cod, simmered in rich anchovy stock, gochukaru, and daikon.
Like any other family, there were days when we ate frozen pizza or instant macaroni and cheese. We occasionally went out to eat or brought back a bucket of fried chicken, too. But 95% of the time, we ate dinner at home and the food was made from scratch.
I’d love to say that our talk around the table was always deep and meaningful. But in actuality, our conversations included more of the ordinary and mundane. After three years of eating together, the inconsequential details stand out more than anything else.
Like the way my brother and I could finish off a rotisserie chicken. He preferred white meat, I liked dark. Together, we’d demolish a whole chicken in one sitting, no problem. And each time we did, my mom would smile and say, “God gave me the perfect children.”
Like the way my dad and I always seemed to reach for the same foods, always at the same time. We really were so much alike. Or the way my brother ostensibly avoided the steak gristle while I loved that chewy, charred bit of fat. And we all loved my mom’s “persimmon smile” as she peeled and cut her favorite fruit for dessert.
Our dinners were nothing special. The food was normal, everyday food. The talk was simple, everyday talk.
And yet, as we gathered around the table, something happened. I was 15 years old, my brother was 14, and we were all new at doing this family thing with my parents. We ate dinner together, night after night, until it became a regular habit to talk and share about our lives.
It seems like such a little thing, eating dinner at the same time, every night. Such a very ordinary act, to sit in the same places and pass dishes to one another. But those dinners shaped us in small ways and big ways, too. And despite what I’m inclined to believe, it wasn’t because of anything spectacular or especially meaningful. We simply sat down to eat and were present to one another. And in doing so, we became a family.