South Texas expat Amy Chozick says that the table is often a battleground between her and her sister on one side, and their mom and dad on the other. Excerpt:
In the decade since my sister and I left South Texas and adopted the palates that come with our respective coastal cities, San Francisco and New York, meals for my family — and, I discovered, many others like ours — have become a source of tension, a stark reminder of the generational red food-blue food divide.
It’s as if each time my family sits down together for a meal, all the cultural differences from the place we came from (land of chain restaurants, big-box grocery stores and drive-throughs) and the places we ended up (lands of Michelin stars, artisanal cheese and locally farm-raised you-name-it) bubble to the surface like the yeast in my sister’s favorite sour batard bread.
Eating together inevitably leads to a long list of proscribed cuisines that are either too spicy (Indian) or too rich (French) or just too New York (brunch). Our mom, always eager to please, recently declared that she loved sushi, “just not the raw stuff.” The morning after Delfina, over dim sum at Yank Sing, an epic family fight broke out somewhere between the Shanghai dumplings and the Peking duck carts.
My sister, Stefani, and I are no better on a visit to Texas. On a recent trip, she declared my folks’ favorite restaurant on the River Walk “a waste of a meal.”
It’s not just a generational thing. I face this too. In fact, we’re trying to plan a Christmas meal now that will please everyone. We want to have enough things that taste interesting to us, without inflicting our own tastes exclusively on everybody else, making them uncomfortable. For much of my adult life, the family table at holiday time was a source of division. My sister felt that I was trying to impose my fancypants food preferences on them; I felt that she was so hung up on status anxiety that she wouldn’t try new things.
Of course none of this was about food. It was about both of us feeling angry and rejected by the other. Chozick writes:
Can food, so often portrayed this time of year as the glue that binds a family together, also be the wedge that drives us apart?
Absolutely, said William J. Doherty, a social science professor at the University of Minnesota who writes about family rituals. “Food is physical, psychological and emotional,” he said. “There’s almost nothing like it as both a connector and a divider.” Tensions aired around the table — “a microcosm of family life and social relations” — often lead to broader, more healthy debates, he said. (True. The dim sum fight somehow transformed into a dayslong discussion about our parents’ retirement plans.)
Dr. Doherty suspects that parents in suburban and rural areas harbor unspoken pride in their children’s culinary snobbery. Yes, we can be insufferable to dine with, but we can also afford to eat out and learn about foods that were not available where we grew up. But like working-class parents who sacrificed to send their children to college, only to find that they have little in common, different tastes can also highlight familial growing pains.
“Food is a symptom and a symbol of change and how people grow apart,” said Heather Paxson, an anthropology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “People want their kids to do better, but there’s also the fear that they’ll be left behind or judged as lacking in some way.”
I think Dr. Doherty is completely wrong, by the way, but whatever. I think the only way to find common ground is for both sides to offer each other grace, and try to put aside status anxiety, at least for the day. That requires some compromise all around. If Ruthie were still here, I would ask her to try to understand that we don’t think of food as a way to assert our superiority — that we really do enjoy this stuff, and think she would too, if she would try it. On my side, I would work to understand that Ruthie doesn’t see holidays as an opportunity for culinary adventure, but finds emotional resonance and continuity in eating the same things we’ve always eaten — and that bringing unfamiliar things to the table calls to mind the fact that one of our family (me) in some sense turned away from the family’s preferences by moving away.
This stuff is hard.
There is no reason not to make room on the table (and in our hearts) for both. For example, we’re making savory pies for Christmas dinner. We’re probably going to make a lamb and mint pie, and a beef and ale pie, and a chicken pot pie. Do I expect many people to eat the lamb pie? No, but it’s there if they want to try it. I expect more folks will be eager to try the beef and ale pie, and everyone will enjoy the chicken pot pie. That sort of thing. We’ll also have a baked ham and other more familiar goodies, which Julie and I also like.
I’d love to hear from you readers how you handle culinary conflicts at the holiday table.