There’s a good argument that many of the characteristics that define us as human evolved from our peculiar custom of sitting down together for dinner. Among these are kinship systems, spoken language, technology, and a sense of right and wrong—all of which may have their roots in food, brought home and divvied up among people gathered together around a primitive communal hearth. Researchers guess that we (and our distant ancestors) have been sharing meals in this way for nearly two million years.
Watch as citizens in Milpa Alta, Mexico, cook sixty thousand tamales and 5,000 gallons of hot chocolate for their annual pre-Christmas fiesta.
Much-publicized results of recent studies show that there are real benefits to shared meals. Family dinners make for stronger family bonds, provide opportunities for communication, and are a venue for transmitting values, traditions, healthy eating habits, and table manners. People who share meals generally eat better than loners. Kids who share family dinners eat more vegetables, fruits, and calcium-rich foods and consume fewer soft drinks and junk-food-type snacks.
Younger children who participate in regular family meals learn social skills and build bigger vocabularies; teenagers who eat with their families do better in school, get along better with their parents, and have lower incidences of depression, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and delinquency. Scientists caution that there are other factors in play here—not all behaviors are solely attributable to joint dinners-but the consensus is that shared meals, socially and psychologically, are a plus. And most people—regardless of the good-for-us benefits—simply find shared meals fun. The solitary food pills gulped down by Buck, Wilma, and the other denizens of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century will never compete with chat and camaraderie around the kitchen table.
That said, polls indicate that Americans are sharing fewer meals than they did back in the days of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Nowadays the average American eats one in every five meals in the car; and one in every four of us eats a fast-food meal every day. While the bulk of American families agree that family meals are something to look forward to, many struggle to get food and family members all in the same place at the same time. According to a 2013 Harris poll, about 30 percent of American families share dinner every night, about 50 percent manage shared meals four nights a week, 20 percent squeak in 2-3 nights a week; and 6 percent never eat dinner together at all.
Seating arrangements at dinners often indicate who is and who isn’t a V.I.P. The head of the household traditionally gets the chair at the head of the table. In the Middle Ages, the distinguished sat at the head of the table, above the centrally placed salt cellar; servants and nobodies sat at the foot, “below the salt,” a phrase still used today to indicate the less-favored and lower-class. Table etiquette similarly can draw a line between who’s in and who’s out: generations of social climbers have been daunted by the behavioral intricacies of eating. Emily Post’s famous Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home--originally published in 1922—was a Bible for the aspiring socialite struggling to master oyster forks, fish knives, finger bowls, and asparagus tongs. (See a quick guide of different types of forks.)
Ideally, however, shared food is more about community and togetherness than classism and one-upmanship. The first Thanksgiving in the November of 1621 was an egalitarian potluck at which some 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoags shared a three-day feast of roast venison, goose, duck, clams, mussels, lobster, cornmeal mush, and—just possibly—turkey.
No one really knows all that the celebrants did during this prolonged party. Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who kept an extensive diary, writes that they “entertained,” as well as feasted; most likely they played games, danced, and competed at target-shooting and tug-of-war. It would be nice to think, however, that during this brief blink of history, they used their epic meal to sit around the table doing what humans have done since time immemorial: talk, laugh, share stories, trade jokes, catch up on the news, and get to know each other better.
source: nationalgeographic.com by Rebecca Rupp