Whatever Happened to Dinner?

Foreword by Martin E. Marty

Some years ago my late colleague Alan Bloom wrote an academic best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. I found one page in it with which to agree. As I recall, Professor Bloom was ruing the fact that religious illiteracy was rampant in America. Then he asked why this was so.

[Whatever Happened to Dinner?]

The fault lay not with public schools, which were not free to teach and commend what religion taught about life. What had disappeared, said Bloom, was not "school" religion, but home-based religion. Jewish kids, he suggested, paid attention to stories about Moses just as Christian kids down the block did with Jesus stories. "We" had to and wanted to reckon with our parents, so we reckoned with these stories. They imparted them at dinner, where other important conversations about life took place.

All that was disappearing, Bloom wrote, when fast-food stops replaced the family dinner table. Who discusses Jesus or virtue or deep things at drive-throughs?

We need to address Bloom's issue, but not in the same old way. "The same" usually comes with heavy doses of nostalgia, sentimentality, balloon-weight theories, boasting about how "we" once lived, and impractical practical advice.

I am happy to say that Melodie Davis and company—poor souls Jodi and Carmen, who got to test recipes—have produced something different, and I am happy to commend it to you. Its many recipes are sandwiched among savory slices of story, theory, counsel, and biblical witness, all delivered deftly.

Who am I to commend this? My vita gives no clues as to why I should be credible. Historians, theologians, pastors, and journalists, among whom I thrive or throve, are not typed as experts on recipes and how-to advice about family living.

Here are my credentials: first, I am a consumer, a regular at family dinner tables since 1955, and an inept preparer of food—though having been married and, as a widower, then married again. My late first wife, trained as a high-school teacher and de-trained as a mother, welcomed foster-, adoptive-, and foreign-student or inner-city drop-ins to our table. One year seven boys aged nine to fourteen gathered at our table nightly.

We also described ourselves as "Victorian," since we had an almost hour-long reading circle each evening. Those of us who enjoyed that luxury can testify to the truth and usefulness of Ms. Davis's book.

The author knows how hard it is to act as she describes to enact the rites she implicitly prescribes. She knows that whatever the odds, including parents with complex schedules and children with ever more complex ones, much can be accomplished if a family seeks this better way with passion, and heroically works to arrange things.

I may be giving the wrong impression. This is not a crabby, bossy, know-it-all author's book. It comes across as a kind of friendly chat, salted with wisdom and peppered with helpful advice. Ordinarily when I edit or introduce a book with only a pre-publication set of loose pages in hand, I set them aside and wait for the book. This time I packed off some recipes to my wife, who serves visiting family and friends in addition to her hungry husband.

John Milton once famously described marriage as an "apt and cheerful conversation." He could have solidified the base of that description had he gone on to note that such conversation prospers best over a meal, graced by prayer and what Davis calls "reflections," such as one can find here. Enjoy.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, The University of Chicago.

Click here to buy Whatever Happened to Dinner? Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime. Cost: $12.99 USD/$14.99 CAD.

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