What Really Happens When We Are Around the Table?

What food means in our lives

When we travel or eat out, many of us are gastronomic adventurers. We crave new tastes and textures. We literally get tastes of cultures. Some of us even break the rules. It might be a daily creamy gelato in Florence on the steps of the Pitti Palace, or an aromatic chai from a street vendor holding court in an alley in Delhi that stick with us.

That tells us we are flexible; we are worldly; we are risk-takers; and we can still have fun.

Eating at home, though, is another story. Health concerns, dietary restrictions, or lack of time or interest — it doesn’t matter — most of us, tired, hungry eaters, want food that is dependable and easy.

Add on the natural flow of family losses and new additions to our busy lives, and old, reliable dishes somehow get lost in the back pages of our recipe collections.

Holidays and food

Family dinnerBut then the holidays roll around once again, we crave the familiar. Whether it’s Mama’s chicken soup or Aunt Bette’s famous pink Jell-O soufflé, most of us want foods that represent home and loved ones, real and remembered. Especially at holiday time, food tells us who we are and who we were.

Just the sight of the table proudly presenting foods we’ve eaten innumerable times before, reminds us that this place is home and these people are family, however one defines these words.

Inviting others to our dinner

With Christmas, Hanukkah, and Dwali fast approaching, we want what we have always had for the holiday dinner.

But if we are to incorporate new members into our families, we need to invite them with foods familiar to them. A particular food from their background can help a holiday feel familiar, even if it’s from a different religious tradition.

Thus, one might ask an Indian son-in-law to bring Indian sweets or a curry, or a Vietnamese daughter-in-law to bring spring rolls, or whatever food reminds her most of home. We might modify one of our family favorites to accommodate the new vegetarians in the family or set aside some of the ingredients before we add the meat.

The rub comes when the person observes Halal or Kosher food customs. Then the person cannot eat your food, but you could ask him or her to bring special food or order some, acknowledging that while you do not observe these rules you are interested in learning and making everyone welcome in your home.

There is a solution here if the host or hostess decides to not feel slighted or exhausted by the newcomer’s requirements. Because food can exclude or include people, it is also a way in which new people and cultures can be incorporated in our celebrations.

By placing dishes on the table from the cultures of new members of our family, we signal to them that they are now part of us and we are expanding to include them. We can make our family’s “soul food” but surround it with the favorites of other familial members. We are creating a new fusion, even if the dishes never touch.


By Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D. and Ellen Rovner Ph.D., Culinary Anthropologist

More about Ruth Nemzoff:
Author and Speaker:
Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family

Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University

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