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One of the more common contemporary middle-class fears is the demise of eating as a family. Advertising bids us aspire to communal meals – we all want to be like the ideal, shiny Oxo family – while simultaneously encouraging us to “grab” snacks and ready meals “on the go” as part of our busy lifestyles. Is it any wonder we’re confused? We eat, it seems, at different times, on different cycles and we’re tortured by the thought that if we could all just slow down, sit and share a big pot of something, the world would be a kinder and gentler place like it was in the old days.
Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up quite so hard. Big table, communal dining may have always been the norm for the aristocracy but they had staff and kitchens to serve a large household. Schools, monasteries, universities and regiments have always dined as a community but that is through a combination of expedience and an understanding of the cohesive power of shared food. It was reasonably common on large farms where the farmhouse kitchen supplied food for the workforce and they occasionally sat down together but peasants, independent cottagers and, after the industrial revolution, ordinary families living in the new cities had few facilities for cooking, let alone eating together.
In Georgian and Victorian cities, there would have been no kitchen in a house without staff. If pushed, one could rustle up a couple of kippers or some bacon but most of the family would have fed themselves on food bought ready made from pie shops, bakeries or pubs. Men usually ate separately from the children; the Victorians in particular had very fixed notions about the dietary needs of men in manual work and what was appropriate for growing kids. Food was not just ready made but designed to be portable: fish and chips, pies, sausage rolls, jellied eels, oysters and half the canon of British nosh was evolved to be eaten standing up. The busy, working family, never seeming to sit down together, eating takeaways or ready meals has always been nearer the truth for the majority. In fact, we’ve been a “grab’n’go” culture for a very long time.
Charles Dickens and other writers used the laden dinner table as a symbol. Appalled as they were by poverty, deprivation and a perceived moral slide, they found the stout paterfamilias, providing in abundance for his grateful family, the perfect image of prosperity and family unity. The family meal passed into our culture as an ideal and draws us powerfully still. Now our homes are equipped for communal dining, we have the ingredients (and the will) easily to hand. Dining as a family is probably the best way we have of expressing and celebrating our unity.
How restaurants deal with family-style eating has changed over the years. Some of my first and happiest recollections were of family celebrations held at Berni Inns – a ramshackle extended clan buying into the impossible glamour of the carvery and silver service. The food might have been grim by today’s standards but it mattered a lot less than the coming together over it.
But as the cult of the chef developed, family-style dining declined. Choosing carefully from the menu, requesting changes and modification, was a demonstration of our status as “foodies”, our knowledge and our refinement. The à la carte menu catered to the most minuscule whim of the individual and conviviality suffered. Which is why one of the most encouraging trends in restaurants today is a rediscovery of “family-style”. Perhaps as part of the great swing towards informality, many restaurants have introduced more sharing dishes and courses and many are offering feasting menus where the whole table gets to share the same dish.
As we’ve become more at ease with dining out we seem to have become more relaxed and with less to prove. We are turning away from some of the more arcane rituals of service – from servility, napery, superfluous cutlery and generally excess fol-de-rol – but at the same time we are able to rediscover one of the simplest and deepest joys of food. We can have our cake and share it.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer