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Friday, July 12, 2024

Death of the Dining Table!

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Now it has become the norm in India too, with parents not insisting that family sit together if not for lunch, at least at dinner. As a result, children pick up their food (sometimes they don’t even care what’s on their plate) and retreat to their rooms and watch Netflix.

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There was an article in a recent issue of the US magazine, Atlantic where it said, people in America had discarded the dining room. The architects too said Americans while buying homes preferred informal bays in the kitchen to have a meal, rather than a formal dining area.

I have seen this with my family in the US too: though all of them have a dining room – embellished with rosewood furniture, lace tablecloths, art on walls and fancy crockery, almost none of them eat at a dining table on a daily basis. Rather adults and children alike, huddled around a television set eating dinner and focusing neither on the food nor the family.

In my daughter’s house in Colorado, we grab a bowl (she’s a fitness coach and believes we consume less eating that way) and eat rice, paneer or dal straight from dishes they are made in. I agree, in the US, it’s all a matter of convenience and the fewer dishes to clean and tidy the better, since they are hard pressed for time. Now it has become the norm in India too, with parents not insisting that family sit together if not for lunch, at least at dinner. As a result, children pick up their food (sometimes they don’t even care what’s on their plate) and retreat to their rooms and watch Netflix. In fact, the Atlantic article said the dining room culture has died out because of the ‘Eat and Netflix’ philosophy that is becoming ubiquitous. I would also say, another reason why the dining table has lost its relevance is because of Swiggy and other deliveries: not only do people prefer to try something new every time (who wants to eat ma’s boring chicken and rice when you can order Chinese one night and Italian another?) but are happy to eat off the plastic boxes in which the food comes (worse eat with plastic spoons).

Food historians will tell us that dining in India has a long history. We saw it in our homes, (in fact it still is the norm in our ancestral homes in small towns), where we sat on a peeta (that wooden stool) and ate off steel or silver thalis. How comforting it was to be served by a mother or an aunt who plied us with extra pulusu and pachadis? Later of course, when we couldn’t sit on the floor, we moved to the dining table. But this was a place, the family members would gather at a stipulated time, to eat together. There was no music or television playing in the background (in my family this was interrogation time for whatever we were up to in school, our tests, marks etc). Plus, my dad was hard on us children wasting food, and would ask us to eat even the curry and coriander leaves which he said were good for the eyes and hair. I cleverly tried to make a mound of food I didn’t want to eat, and camouflage it under chewed up drumsticks but most of the time he discovered the wasted food, and gave me the necessary scolding for not realizing how precious food was. Which indeed it is! But as a result of that, to this day, I feel guilty when I waste food.

Nowadays, very few families insist on eating together because of everyone’s busy schedules, what with someone’s office timings or another’s tuition. As a result, not just the formal dining room but along with it the bonding that occurred at the table over home cooked food, has all but disappeared. (In India of course, especially Hyderabad we have rooms upon rooms so building a formal dining room is not a problem, but do we eat there as a family is the question, I ask). And because we do not share a meal, largely no one in the family has a clue what’s going on in another person’s life. Maybe this is why children these days are so distant from their parents or siblings, because no one spends time talking with each other. The binding factor, the shared food over a table, has become irrelevant in today’s world.

I guess it’s my conditioning and habit of many years, that even if I eat alone, as I do, I eat at a dining table in a small room allotted as dining space, and even if I don’t wear my best clothes at least get the best crockery out and insist food is placed in decent dishes and kept on the table. There is certainly grace to eating at a dining table and this is my way of showing gratitude for the food that is before me.

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