We started a new menu at the Red Lion Inn this weekend, the centerpiece of which is family style dining. You get a choice of lobster corn chowder, Caesar salad, or Red Lion fondue to begin; a choice of pork tenderloin, chicken, or London broil for entree; and a choice of creme brulee, Bailey’s cheesecake, or lemon tart for dessert — all for $14.95. Everyone at the table can order what they want, but if they do order together, then it gets fun. Instead of individual plates the food comes out on wonderful platters for everyone to share. Robert, our Head Chef, is great at making the food both taste good and look good, so when the platters went out, people gasped.
Now that’s what meal time should be.
But “family style” is becoming an anachronistic term — at least, when we use it to describe the kind of meal where people actually sit down to eat. Today, as people rush to games, practices, play dates, and whatever else is on the schedule, family style eating means driving through some fast food joint and eating in the car. It’s not about the meal, it’s about survival.
When I was growing up, meal time meant we sat down at the table and ate together, whether we were eating pork tenderloin or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother always made a point of putting things in bowls, rather than putting the jars on the table. We were sitting down to do more than eat; we were eating together.
One of my favorite novels is Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Ezra, who grows up in a family that leaves him with little idea of what family is, opens a restaurant in order to create a feeling of home for those who come in, even though he knows little of what home really feels like. That image is part of what attracts me to restaurant work and a great deal of what attracts me to cooking and making meals. When I sit down at the table with friends I have a shot at feeling at home. When we send out the beautiful platters to the folks at the Red Lion, we are offering them a moment to really be together. I like that.
Beats the hell out of pulling up to the drive through window.
My contribution to the table was getting to make the stuffing to go with the pork. Robert said he wanted some sort of cranberry-apple stuffing and left the rest up to me. I cubed some of the baguettes we had; sauteed some chopped bacon, onion, and celery; added chopped apples, dried cranberries, chopped fresh sage, salt & pepper, melted butter, white wine, and enough water to make it moist, and then baked it until it was firm. (When I can be more specific about amounts, I’ll post it on the recipe page.) It went along with the pork, and mashed butternut squash. I got hungry every time one of the platters went out.
It’s funny, sometimes, making meals for people we never see. We send the platters out to people we do not know, hoping to make a meal happen for them: that they don’t just fill up on food, but they find a way to be together, to make a memory, or have time to tell a couple of stories. Sometimes we hear a few things: they loved the food, they were very impressed. Occasionally, the server will say, “They won’t leave; they’re still sitting and talking.”
That’s my favorite.
I’m sad to say that the Atkinsons have a hard time sharing a meal. We limp along, knowing we are missing something but often not knowing how to find it. It doesn’t help matters that my oldest daughter is now a vegetarian. Makes preparation hard for families where mom and dad work.
Wow, it was only a couple weeks ago I was trotting out Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant lessons myself.
My mother is Ezra, in this example. She dreams of getting all of us together for a sit-down meal; epiphany; completion. Ya get it.
Favorite recent quote at the Joneses: “Can we sit in the dinin’ room and eat like a normal family? No, wait Scooby Doo & the Loch Ness Monster is on!” — Harrison, 5