Mister Boomer is feeling nostalgic again. This time it was a smell that triggered it. He picked up a cooking aroma wafting through the air that was hard to identify in particular, yet got Mister B’s flashback machine in gear. Of course food smells have always been able to click the nostalgia meter for boomers, and everyone else for that matter. Mr. B can’t imagine sniffing a certain brand of bread crumbs without immediately being transported to his grandmother’s kitchen, and ultimately to her breaded pork chops. That led Mister B to recall Sunday dinners.
When most boomers were growing up, every night was family dinner night, but Sunday dinners were often more special. In Mister B’s case, Sunday dinner in the 1950s and early ’60s were spent at his maternal grandparents’ house. Meals were wholesome and simple, and were shared family style with aunts, uncles and cousins. It was the addition of family that extended the meal from simple sustenance to something more meaningful.
The dinners also spoke very much of the expected roles in early boomer days of parents, children, men and women in the preparation and eating of the meal. Women were expected to prepare all of the food, while men were expected to stay out of their way, which generally meant drinking beer in the backyard, and possibly playing cards in the process. Mister B still remembers his mother and each of his aunts donning an apron as soon as they entered the kitchen. Sometimes the kids set the table, knowing where grandma kept the regular dishes and flatware. Naturally cloth napkins and a cloth tablecloth were part of the table setting; in Mister B’s family, paper products were used for camping trips and outdoor grilling.
When the meal was ready, the kids were separated from the adults in the formal dining room. Depending on how many cousins arrived, the kids could be at one end of the long dining room table, or have a kids’ table to themselves. As a general rule, parents did not speak to their children during the dinner, unless it pertained to the food. Likewise, children were expected to speak among themselves, and not interfere with the adult conversation in any way. For good measure, the aunts and uncles might speak in their parents’ native tongue to be sure to keep the conversation away from young ears.
After the meal was finished, the men and children went back to what they were doing before dinner, while the women set up a dish washing process. No one in Mister B’s family had a dishwasher until the late 1960s, and even then, it was the aunt and uncle who bought the new house with the built-in appliances. Nonetheless, Mister B could observe a jovial and spirited conversation — in another language — among his aunts, grandmother and mother while the work was being done.
While John Kennedy was president, both of Mister Boomer’s grandfathers passed away, causing both grandmothers to move from their houses. The family dinners didn’t happen as often any more, as space became an even bigger factor. That’s when Mister Boomer’s mother cooked up her own Sunday family dinners.
Sunday dinners in Mister B’s house consisted mainly of chicken, prepared the way his father liked it, and chicken soup. It was not really to Mister B’s liking, as his mother was cooking-challenged. He preferred the Sunday spaghetti dinners with the tomato sauce and meatballs that had been on the stove all day.
Unlike the earlier Sunday dinners at his grandparents’ houses, at home the family did talk to each other during dinner. The TV, however, was always turned off. Mister Boomer’s sister was good at controlling the conversation to discuss the goings on in her life, from Barbie accessories to spats with neighborhood kids. School was rarely a big topic at dinner. Mister B’s parents didn’t have to ask if the kids had done their homework before heading to school on Monday, because the chances were good that any weekend homework would have been done on Friday evening.
When the meal was finished, it was the kids who cleared the table and washed the dishes. Mister B’s mom would tackle the bigger pots and pans later.
These days, during the week, each family member goes their own way, even at an early age, so family dinners are already on the endangered list. Sunday dinners, for some families, are the last stand for family gatherings, and from what Mister B hears, are becoming rare. The presence of distractions like TVs, tablets and phones during the dinner — that were not there when boomers were young — adds to the disconnect among family members.
For Mister B, Sunday dinners were about more than a meal, and the meals became memorable, too. Did you have memorable Sunday family dinners, boomers?