Dinnertime in my house growing up was a large activity, similar to what some people organize at a community centre, anniversary party or family reunion. But ours occurred seven days a week. My mother dutifully planning meals for groups of 15 to 10, depending on whether someone brought a new girlfriend, a priest was visiting or who in the family had moved back or moved out. I think you are likely imagining at this moment a civil, mannered, gathering but this is not the case.
My family are competitive storytellers.
This leads to escalation. Escalation of volume, drama, and alcohol. Please don’t make a daft Irish joke. This storytelling happened at a long table that my dad had to build to accommodate the tribe. Before dinner, it was my job to make the skim milk. I had to scoop hard little balls of white powdery substance into jugs then add tap water and stir. I remember not being big enough to carry any of the jugs out of the sink I was mixing in, stretching from the chair that barely allowed me to get my long spoon down to the bottom. I loved being in the steamy kitchen with my mother, the door shut, keeping most of the din at bay while she whirled from oven to stove, table to fridge.
My father would rise from his easy chair and yell Dinner! to all three floors. In our house it was a clear partriarchy–you didn’t dare not show up within a nanosecond of that bark and race into the kitchen where my mother warmly welcomed you into her hive of waiting victuals. I sat on a long bench, at the end, tucked in close to my mother, and mostly remember trying to ensure my food and dessert were not eaten by other diners as I mutely absorbed the day from my brothers, keeping a wary eye at the head of the table for fluctuating mood swings in my father.
If you have ever watched the Discovery channel and witnessed hyenas, followed by vultures, overhauling a carcass already eaten by lions, you might understand the frenzy around food in my house. I always felt as though you had to race to eat it because it was gone so quickly. As I grew up, and had jaw-dropping moments at ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET, I had the same feeling: get it while you can! At parties, I felt since it was free, I was obliged to eat the most decadent, deeply delicious offerings and eat many–who knew when I’d see another plate of Nanaimo bars or salty Hungarian salami and Brie? It was as though I needed to stock up, to hoard and take back to my tiny, freezing cold room on West 11th. But I was thirty-five?
This year I put all this together. Yes, a little late in life but nonetheless, a forward movement so give me a virtual hug–I know you want to. I also realized, that there was a dearth of flavour in my childhood because my father was dying from a failing heart and was often in the hospital so food got blander, and my taste buds got bored and longed for salt, salt, salt. No wonder a whole bag of Kettle Chips to myself was so euphoric!
Now I know that whatever food I might long for from that deep, unsalted, tribal place, is really just a car ride away and no brother is going to scoop it from my plate. In fact, right now I am having a lovely glass of Okanagan wine with a slice of Camembert and apple. Just to myself and it is all I need.