One of the best books I read over the summer was The Moment, a collection of very brief pieces by writers, artists, and others describing one moment in which their entire lives changed. In addition to feeling something like a Chicken Soup for the Literary Soul (Jennifer Egan, Neal Pollack, Dave Eggers, and Michael Paterniti are just a few of the 125 contributors), I love a book like this for the new authors to whom it may lead. In my case, I came across Laurie David, whose “moment” stood out for its simplicity among the many career and romance-related epiphanies recounted in the book. Although her brief bio describes her as the Academy Award-winning environmental activist who co-produced An Inconvenient Truth, she chose as her momentous occasion an ordinary dinner one evening with her two teenage daughters, in which she realized she had actually done one thing right as a parent: “to insist on a daily family dinner.”
As it turns out she wrote an entire book on this theme, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time , which is something like a cookbook and parenting guide mixed into one, full of recipes and suggestions on how to get as many members of your family hanging around the table as possible, as often as you can manage. I can’t say I read the whole thing, nor am I much (i.e., anything) of a cook, but the book is full of good ideas, and in a sense it’s a comfort just to know how powerful such a simple act can be, and that someone took the time and trouble to do a whole book about it. As David writes, “the research on the topic is quite staggering and conclusive,” but the best reason to try is that such a ritual maintains personal connections “in today’s crazy, busy, technology-infused world.”
I suppose it’s pretty easy for me to talk at the moment, with a baby and toddler who are literally held captive in high chairs each evening at our own family table. And I’m not sure if Ms. David would approve of the ape house ambience of most dinners at my house. In fact, I saw nothing in her book about my favorite recipe for kids, which is really less of a recipe than a shape (Step 1: Take any reasonably mushy food. Step 2: Use gingerbread man-shaped cookie cutter to cut out man shape. Step 3: Encourage biting off head, limbs, and finally body of food man.) But the book has obtained a ringing endorsement from my 12-year old dog, who swears by a strict regimen of thrice-daily family meals for us humans around the table, and who mysteriously seems to be a constant pacing presence beneath, although these days he otherwise demands a detailed explanation of why he may need to get up off the couch.
As for my 2 ½ year old son, I’m beginning to believe his favorite aspect of the family meal is not the food but the audience. In that sense he may be like one of Laurie David’s own longtime dinner participants, for I was surprised to see a familiar face at her table when flipping through photos in the book, that of her ex-husband Larry David, curmudgeonly star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s interesting that the wives of both Larry David and his alter ego, Jerry Seinfeld (whose show David helped create) have become known for writing books focused on feeding children; Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbooks for kids are perennial bestsellers. I’m afraid my son has appointed himself official comedian of our table, although to be brutally honest, at this point his jokes don’t amount to much more than the comedic equivalent of cave paintings, and unfortunately, there is nothing in Laurie David’s book about the proper adult response to a joke like: “Hey Daddy, there’s poop in my water bottle! Ha ha ha ha!!”