The Wretched Table: How Dinner in America Became an Ordeal

Modern dinner is stressful by design.
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Modern dinner is stressful by design.
(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

Elinor Ochs has seen both the sublime and the terrifying when it comes to family. When she greeted me at her ranch house in Pacific Palisades last January, Ochs, a slender woman with a bell of curly dark hair, sat me down at a long wooden table for the first course of what she’d promised would be a “really informal” meal: a salad of sliced green beans, avocados, tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella. Around me were all the signs of a comfortable and engaged life: family photos, relics from her anthropological fieldwork in Samoa and Madagascar, a large and clearly well-used Viking range in the kitchen. Then I asked about her children, and Ochs, who at that point was standing at the stove with her back to me preparing spaghetti for the second course, said, “I have two children, but I had three children.”

The experience of losing one of her twin boys early in childhood to a congenital heart defect made Ochs, she told me from the kitchen, “realize that family is the most important thing in the world.” It helped set her course as a researcher, focusing on how family structure can contribute to individual well-being. And it gave her a personal understanding into how the ideals of family can, sometimes, clash with harsh and painful realities.

Ochs began studying how families talk to each other in Samoa in 1978, traveling there along with her second husband, linguistic anthropologist Alessandro Duranti. Her research helped spark the academic field of language socialization, or the ways that learning a language helps children learn a culture, for which Ochs won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. The work on Samoan families also guided Ochs into what’s been the central work of her career: the long-term study of American families, and particularly American dinner.

Parent after parent quotes the desire to provide "well-balanced meals" and "healthy choices"—and then takes the kids to Dante's Burritos or serves them Spaghetti-Os.

When I was at her house, Ochs told me, with a touch of humor, “I used to say dinner was my only religion.” She felt this way, she said, during her initial phase of studying dinner, in the mid-1980s, when she and a group of colleagues recorded the dinnertime conversations of 20 Los Angeles families with two small children. At the time, although reams of articles had been written on “feasting rituals of the Nuer” and the like, few anthropologists had studied the American meal. Ochs’ results suggested some deep contradictions when it came to how Americans experienced dinner. On the one hand, she said, it was a moment of intimacy that encouraged kids to confide in their parents. On the other, there was intense pressure put on children, who came under both parents’ interrogative spotlight at once. She wrote that dinner could feel like a panopticon; that the way parents held out dessert as a reward for finishing vegetables was a highly Protestant way of putting duty before pleasure. “Everything that has a good side has also the potential to have a disruptive side that tears relationships apart,” Ochs told me.

In the early 2000s, as director of the Center on the Everyday Lives of Families at the University of California-Los Angeles, Ochs had an opportunity to observe these contradictions on a much broader scale. She conducted a monumental study examining all aspects of life among 32 middle-class, two-child Los Angeles families over several years. Ochs’ new results mirrored the old ones: Dinner was conflict-ridden and poorly attended, with only 17 percent of the families eating together on all the nights recorded.

Over the 30 years since Ochs’ first round of studies, Americans have become, if anything, even more fixated on dinner. In part, that is salutary: Recent research suggests that eating dinner as a family reduces our children’s propensity for obesity, depression, and eating disorders. Celebrities from Jamie Oliver to Laurie David have tried to convince us to eat together; Harvard has a Family Dinner Project dedicated to promoting the meal.

But some of the tensions between ideal and reality—the moral angst of dinner—might be hurting us, Ochs said, when it comes to mealtime: “In the United States we so ‘Norman Rockwell’ that moment, but it actually can be pretty tense to bring family members together.” Modern dinner is stressful by design. Once a midday meal of convenience, it took on a much more heightened cultural role during the Industrial Revolution, when the family began to splinter during the day and dinner became the reunion, Abigail Carroll, a food historian and author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, told me. And with that new elevation came new pressures.

Research from Ochs and her colleagues shows clearly how one particular tension, between a moralized notion of health and the actual food people feed their kids, often explodes into mealtime fights. Parents seem clueless when it comes to nutrition: About a meatless meatball, one mother says to her son, “Eat at least one of these ... because it has your vegetable and protein in it. I mean your protein. Or your vegetables. Or something.” And yet parents are fixated on nutrition to an almost punitive extent. One father complains that his nine-year-old daughter “can’t control her diet ... doesn’t seem to care about what she eats or how she looks”—and then, multiple times, gives in to her requests for more helpings. Parent after parent quotes the desire to provide “well-balanced meals” and “healthy choices”—and then takes the kids to Dante’s Burritos or serves them Spaghetti-Os. Hamstrung by these basic logical flaws, the parents are unable to provide useful direction to their kids, and few end up eating very healthily or even enjoying family mealtime. “A lot of the moral issues on how we should live our life is on food,” Ochs told me.

We are certainly in a moment when the ideal dinner seems nearly unachievable. Ochs points out the distractions of devices, the ever-lengthening workday, the demands of school and afterschool and homework. (For me, with a toddler at home, the seafood pasta and orange cake Ochs went on to serve formed about as perfect a meal as I ever get.) She has a few basic recommendations for improvement, though. The main one is that more Americans learn to cook from scratch. Ochs has found that fresh food keeps families at the table more often, and doesn’t take much longer to make: “There were only 10 minutes difference between the meals that were made from scratch and from prepared foods,” she said.

But she understands, as she put it, that “When there’s so many things that have to come down after you get home from work, that 10 minutes may seem like an eternity.” Indeed, any extra time spent cooking—and the pressure it puts on (mostly) mothers—could incite revolution in those of us already feeling bad about our dinnertime failures. At home one night after my meal with Ochs, as I labored to make pasta sauce from scratch while a child wailed at my feet, I realized how difficult it was just to think about improving dinner without reinforcing the ideals that already made it so hard.

And yet Ochs has kept a tempered faith in, if not an ideal dinner, at least some not-so-bad version. “Although it has all these downsides, it’s such an incredible opportunity for families to ... make sense out of each other’s lives,” she said. “I think a lot of really terrific things can happen around the dinner table.”

This post originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue ofPacific Standardas “The Wretched Table.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.