One of my main photographic goals is to reexamine things that happen all the time, events that we take for granted. So a few years ago I tried photographing my family at dinner, using a remote switch with a timer to include myself in the photos. I tried from every angle, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. My husband, also a photographer, suggested mounting the camera above the table, an idea that I suspect came from his experience using remotes to photograph basketball. This aerial view of our nighttime meal was used to illustrate a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about memory and identity.
The photo, as well as several new ones, is in my domestic life collection.
I wrote the essay below during the same time period that I took the dinner photo.
How Dinner Serves
I used to feel embarrassed for making dinner. A smarter woman would figure out how to get it done more efficiently. Chopping broccoli myself, what a chump! A more successful woman would pick up takeout on the way home from her high-powered job.
A better cook would make soup faster.
A better mother would not allow the three-year-old and the 10-month-old to play out of sight while she cooks.
Growing up, I thought the “what’s for dinner” dilemma endlessly dissected in my mom’s magazines would be outmoded by the time I reached my own sophisticated adulthood. I was ambivalent about cooking as a legitimate use of time even then. I actually enjoyed it, and chose cooking as my 4-H project. But when an elderly man told me I would make a great wife someday, I felt all the indignity that a 14-year-old feminist can muster.
When I got married, the inner conflict continued. I liked to cook, but resented the time it took, feeling that each meal delayed my professional advancement.
Now that I am a mother, cooking has taken on new meaning and purpose. It isn’t just about food anymore. Making dinner is a stabilizing force when my child is in his room for screaming and kicking at me, and I sit dazed in the living room, wondering what to do with him, with my life, with that moment.
There are always things to do, of course. But what can I accomplish while also supervising child no. 2, a small creature with no sense of safety or impulse control? The list of possibilities quickly narrows. I can’t do “real” work. I will make dinner.
It is not easy. The interruptions are relentless. Recipe preparation times do not account for corralling a toddler using his walker to crash open the bathroom door.
Cooking allows a delicate balance of supervision and benign neglect. My sons get independence just shy of anarchy.
When everything is quiet, too quiet, my vivid imagination makes me leave the kitchen and go check on the boys. Once I stopped a diaper box toboggan ride just before it hurtled down our steep wooden stairs. My older son, exasperated, reassured me: “Mom, I’m going to go with him in case he gets hurt!” Another afternoon, though, I rushed in to find him teaching his little brother phonics.
The time and activity required to prepare a meal help me gain perspective. My children are being children, and they are (most likely) not making me crazy on purpose. It is natural to be homesick for my family in California after returning to Illinois in February. Using a recipe to make dinner is reassuring. It has to be done, I know what to do, and if I follow the rules, it will be a success.
Therapeutic benefits aside, the whole dinner-making process is an exercise in futile optimism. I plan, shop, prepare, cut up, serve, pray over and clean up a meal I know full well my kids won’t eat. I do relentless dinner PR, excitedly talking about how delicious the food will be. It does not work.
When my boys were younger, the baby shoveled his food into his mouth with shiny pudgy hands, bellowing when his tray was empty, yelling when he saw my food even as he ate his own. Meanwhile, my older son ate like a rushing Pi Phi, all chatter and no chewing.
Now neither of them eats.
When my older son was four he tried very patiently to explain dinner to me. He stared down at his plate, disappointed once again. Trying to speak slowly and clearly, with a hint of frustration, he listed the things he does like to eat: pancakes, mints, tomatoes NOT the kind that have been in the oven, orange, pear, and on through other fruits and breads. Three days later I was having dinner in a fancy restaurant, and after biting into my giant scallop on a baked tomato, realized he had a point about the tomatoes.
The dinner table atmosphere is its own challenge. One evening with the boys, trying not to be grumpy after wiping up yet another milk spill, I said, “What should we have as our dinner discussion?” The five-year-old: “How bad guys fight.” The two-year-old: “Poo poo butt fight.” They were each delighted with their conversation.
I began playing music CDs during dinner, thinking it would soothe and edify the kids. It was my way of bringing in a missing adult when my husband was gone, or, when I played religious Christmas music in February, of calling for divine assistance. The angelic voices contrasted with the purgatorial sounds of eating alone with two small boys.
At the end of some days all I can say is that I kept the kids alive, and just barely. Making and serving dinner gives me a sense of tangible accomplishment, and ensures that no matter how bad things have been, or how briefly the meal lasts, everything will stop and we will all sit down together.
As an adult, I realized that eating nightly wasn’t becoming obsolete. I thought the only person who had completely evolved away from the dinner problem was Gwyneth Paltrow, and that sometimes even she tossed together some expensive organic macaroni for her beautiful children. Then I found out that she is a fabulous cook with great knife skills, and has published her own cookbook.
Maybe I’m more sophisticated than I thought.