F is for family …
… and the depths and heights of gastronomical enjoyment to be found at the family board.
It is possible, indeed almost too easy, to be eloquently sentimental about large groups of assorted relatives who gather for Christmas or Thanksgiving or some such festival and eat and drink and gossip and laugh together. They always laugh: on Norman Rockwell magazine covers and in Iowa novels and in any currently popular variation of I Remember Moustache Cups, there is Gargantuan laughter, from toothless babe to equally toothless Gramp. Great quantities of home-cooked goodies are consumed, great pitchers of Uncle Si's hard cider are quaffed, and, above all, great gusts of earthy merriment sweep like prairie fire around the cluttered table, while the menfolk bring out their whittling knives in postprandial digestive calm, and the women (sometimes spelled “wimmin” to denote an inaudible provincialism) chatter and scrape and swab down in the kitchen, and the bulging children bulge.
The cold truth is that family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters.
The best way to guarantee smooth sailing at one of them, probably, is to assemble the relatives only when a will must be read. This at least presupposes good manners during the meal, if the lawyer is not scheduled to appear until after it. Funeral baked meats have perhaps been more enjoyed than any christening cakes or wedding pottages, thanks largely to the spice of wishful thinking that subtly flavors them, as yet uncut by disappointment, dread, or hatred.
My own experience with family dinners has fallen somewhere between this facile irony and the bucolic lustiness of popular idealization. I remember that several times at Christmas there were perhaps twenty of us at the ranch for a lengthy noon dinner to which none of us was accustomed. I always had fun, being young and healthy and amenable, but I do not recall, perhaps to my shame, that I had any special fun.
To be truthful, I was conscious by about my twelfth year that there was about the whole ceremony a kind of doggedness, a feeling that in spite of hell and high water we were dutybound to go through with it, because my grandfather was very old and might not live another year or because a cousin had just lost her abominable but very rich husband or because another cousin was going to Stanford instead of Yale at Yale's request and so would be with us. Something like that. It was tacitly understood that the next day would find my sister Anne droopy and bilious, my mother overtired, and the cook crankily polishing glasses and eying the piles of the best Irish linen to be laundered. My father, on the other hand, would still be glowing; he loved any kind of party in the world, even a family one.
I seem, and I am thankful of it, to have inherited some of his capacity for enjoying such intramural sport, fortunately combined with my mother's ability to cope with it. In spite of my conviction that a group of deliberately assembled relatives can be one of the dullest, if not most dangerous, gatherings in the world, I am smugly foolhardy enough to have invited all my available family to dine with me more than once. The last time was perhaps the most daring, and it went off with a dash and smoothness that will always bulwark my self-esteem, for it was the happy result of many days of thought and preparation.