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Food and Family

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Last night, I went out to a dinner with my mom. It was a group dinner, through an organization that my parents belong to, the Minnesota International Center. They’ve been a part of that group since I was in high school, and possibly slightly earlier.

For those teen years, the MIC was associated in my world with the regular parade of (typically) Japanese businessmen we’d host for a dinner in a “typical” American home. Whether or not we were indeed “typical” is probably open for debate, but the point was that while they were visiting this country, this would give them the opportunity to see families up close, and have an evening away from their business trip, a hotel room, and another restaurant meal.

I don’t remember how many of these dinners we hosted, and while each was different, they were also remarkably similar.

Mom and I would be working the prep and cooking end. Julie would be helping set the table or whatever else was needed. Dad, who at the time was studying Japanese, would drive to whatever downtown hotel the group of two-to-four businessmen was staying in, and shuttle them back to our typical American home.

They’d arrive, and after the handshaking, bowing, introductions and gift exchanging (I can’t tell you the number of ear spoons I got from those guys–It must have been a standard host/hostess gift in Japan, but it leaves you wondering what exactly you’re telling your host by giving them something to clean out their ears with), we’d get underway with hors d’oeuvres and find out more about each other.

Then we’d gather at the table for dinner. Invariably, at least one or two of them would have their personal set of chopsticks stashed in a jacket pocket and would whip them out to eat with. Mom would explain each of the dishes we were serving–which, in usual fashion for my mom were far from “typical” American fare (I recall French stew, porketta, Swedish meatballs once, a lasagna once). Then everyone would start to dig in. Then they’d stop and gasp.

Ah yes. My sister–the complete lefty–would dig in with her left hand. And for the Japanese businessman crowd, that was contrary to their societal norm. We’d pause, explain that she’s such a lefty that Julie’s right hand was basically just for balance, uniformity and appearance, as opposed to having any actual utility, and move on.

The evenings would progress to coffee and desserts. Sometimes, one or two of the guys would perform an impromptu karaoke session (sans karaoke music, mind you) in the living room. Sometimes, I’d actually break down and play something on the piano. And no, Julie wouldn’t be asked to dance.

These dinners were brought up last night at the dinner I was at with Mom. We were seated with a retired couple that hosted their first dinner less than a year ago. And very briefly, I wondered what it would be like to host a dinner at my “typical” American home…

But the point here isn’t the Japanese businessmen or even the French dinner last night. It’s something that I grew up with thanks to my mom: that sense of dinners and food and the time with family and friends over dinner as being special, memorable experiences.

Most of those individual dinners are lost in the dusty recesses of my memory, though there are shards of specific events that do come through, but I remember the feeling and the sense of the dinners. They were simultaneously formal and informal, fussy and simple. They carried with them a feeling of discovery, because while every Japanese businessman was very much the same, they all had different families and stories to tell.

But you can draw that feeling further. I’ll remember last night’s dinner with mom not because Rudy Maxa was there and talked for about 15 minutes about camels and chum (really…Maybe I’ll save that for another entry) but because the food was very good. And because I had a good solid 3+ hours of talking with mom and the other couple at our table.

That’s why I enjoy fussing over a big meal for my family, or doing the big meal for a Thanksgiving, or Christmas or Easter or what-have-you for friends, family and guests: the food is the framework on which the event is built. For Christmas with my family, I decided to really push the envelope and make a beef rib roast not because I had done it before, but because I hadn’t, and thought it would be fun and somewhat different for my family.

Mom asked me in an e-mail today what it is about her life that makes it centered around food and family, and I think it’s exactly that. When I was growing up, the big family meals with my grandparents and the whole Dunnette clan weren’t elaborate affairs, because doing that for the crowd of 18 or so would break the bank, but even homemade soup and bread had that special feeling because it was the vehicle for bringing us all together and having that dedicated hour or something to sit, talk, and enjoy each other’s company.

So that’s what it is, mom. You enjoy being with “your people,” and with others with whom you can swap stories and learn from. So when they’re gathered at the table enjoying a good meal, that personal time just naturally comes along as part of the marriage.

Oh, and thanks again for the invite and the dinner, mom.

See you tomorrow.