Whatever happened to dinner?

Making dinner is a way of paying attention, of slowing down and saying, 'this matters.'

Gabriel, my 15-year-old, had just finished setting the table and I was at the stove, ladling Indian tomato soup into bowls, when we heard a knock at the door. Gabe went to open it and called out, "Two more for dinner!" As his friends settled around the table, one of them asked, with a touch of awe in his voice, "Do you have dinner together every night? In our house, it's every man for himself." Then he added, "This is nice." It had been one of those rare evenings when I'd managed to rope both my husband and son into a joint dinner-making effort. Bob made the soup, Gabe the refried beans and I made the salsa. Grated cheese, sliced avocado and hot tortillas completed the meal. The effort took the three of us less than half an hour. Many of us in our 50s already have an empty nest, but I started late. With two kids in the army and one child left at home, I go through my days with an acute sense that our family life as it's been for the past 22 years is coming to an end. Making dinner every night, or intending to - I don't always succeed - is one way I have of holding on to these last moments. The previous night, we enjoyed an Ethiopian meal (cheap and tasty at Ethio-Israel downtown) with friends who are expecting their third child. Their oldest is seven. "You're in a different phase of life," they said. "True," I said and, clich though it may be, couldn't help adding, "But it goes by so fast." "That's because we don't pay attention," Bob said in a rare nod to Eastern ideas that seem to be everywhere these days. Making dinner is a way of paying attention, of slowing down and saying, "this matters." It's not easy in our day. It means saying no to other possibilities: coffee with a friend in the late afternoon, an interesting lecture at 7 p.m. a meeting from 6-8 p.m. The powers-that-be who schedule such things don't seem to take a family dinner hour into account. I'm not sure there still is such a thing as a family dinner hour. In the States it's gotten to the point where President George Bush has declared September 24 as Family Day - A Day to Eat Dinner with your Children. I've always engaged in extra-curricular activities - what a friend calls my hugim (after school activities) - and becoming a mom didn't change that. There are so many fun and interesting and enriching activities out there in the world beyond the family: choirs and writing groups, dance and Torah classes. Not to mention the Diet Club, without whose weekly meetings, I seem to put on a pound a week. But one by one, I've dropped them all. (Not the pounds, just the activities.) I didn't like the pressure of having to rush to get dinner on the table and out the door on time. Or to have to skip dinner altogether. Something lately is compelling me to stay home more. A kind of end-of-the-nest nesting instinct. With an avidly separating teenager in the house, it means I have to work at finding that fine balance between being around but not being "in his face," as Bob puts it. Who needs to go to a class when there are daily lessons right here in the living room? At the restaurant last night, we ate injara with wot, an Ethiopian staple. The injara, a kind of big, thin sourdough pancake-like bread, arrives on a round platter with the wot - stews of lentils, vegetables or meat - placed in small piles on it. Everyone tears pieces of the injara, gathers with it a bit of stew and eats. As we ate from our communal dish, we talked about the family dinner conundrum. Both of our friends work and Sara also is studying for an advanced degree. Like many young families, they don't find themselves sitting down to dinner together except for the Friday night Shabbat meal. "It's a crisis," Shmuel admitted. Then he told us something his late father said when he first arrived from Ethiopia and saw people eating from separate plates: "That's the root of all the conflict." When I visited Bukhara - the land of my ancestors - with a friend in the late '70s as emissaries to the refuseniks who were still locked in the USSR, we found a family with my last name (Moussaioff, which my father had simplified to Mason). They invited us to dinner and served a large pilau - a festive Bukharan dish with which I had grown up made of rice and lamb - on a large round tray very much like the one in the Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem. They passed out tablespoons and everyone dug in. When I later told my mother about this experience, she said, "They gave you spoons because you were guests." We are obviously not going to return to tribal ways of eating, even if they clearly bring people together in a way western-style eating does not. But more women (yes, alas, women) I know are returning to the kitchen. And US studies show that teenagers who eat dinner with their families at least four times a week get better grades and are less likely to get involved with drugs. My friend Sherri, one of those who finds herself cooking more these days, says: "The kitchen is the center of the home. It's good if there is someone there." Soup Saut e onions, add a mixture of Indian spices like cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, coriander, hot pepper; add tomato juice, boil till it thickens slightly. Refried beans Drain and blend two cans black beans, add to garlic saut ed with cumin and black pepper and cook for a few minutes. Salsa Throw tomatoes (cherry are tastier), parsley, fresh coriander, red and green onion, a bit of hot pepper, fresh lemon juice and salt into the food processor and blend coarsely.