Years ago, I was riding around the ragged edges of a Washington, D.C., suburb with my brother-in-law, who’s retired now, but who was a real-estate appraiser. We were on a street of modest, slightly-crumbling brick colonials, not unlike the one in which I would eventually live. “Oh, those,” he said, gesturing his arm out the window of the car. “I bet every single room has its own deadbolt lock.”
What he meant by this was, in a neighborhood that had been settled mostly by Latin American immigrants—many of whom likely of possibly dubious documentation; sin papeles—these former “single family” houses had effectively been repurposed as boardinghouses, filled with collections of random and unrelated renters. He did not mean it as a compliment.
I’ve been thinking about that anecdote a lot during the last couple of weeks, since I happened to read, in relatively short succession, a couple essays that unwittingly gave starkly different portraits of human flourishing in contemporary America.
The first was John Hawbaker’s interview, here at Good Letters, with Kendall Vanderslice, “The Gospel is a Story of Meals.” If you’ve not yet read Hawbaker’s discussion with Vanderslice, a theologian and a baker, about her recently-published book We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship , and the Community of God, you’ll be haunted by Vanderslice’s evocation of the embodied prayer of kneading bread—a form of prayer that will nourish in two ways the folks for whom she is praying.
But the crux of Vanderslices’s discussion was not the private ascesis of breadmaking. Rather, the shared community of eating—and what that says about God-with-us—was at its essence. The apex of that meal, she proffered from the beginning, was the Eucharistic one—even if that meal did happen to be re-imagined and positioned as part of “dinner churches” like St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn (which I’ve always wanted to visit) and Vanderslice’s own Simple Church congregation. (Those churches themselves, it should be said, see themselves, rather, as returning to the actual form of the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Acts.)
Against that backdrop, “Something is Changing the Way People Eat at Home”—by the always-compelling Joe Pinsker, who covers “families and education” —was incredibly depressing. You can tell where this is going right from the subtitle: “Out with the kitchen table, in with the couch.”
Via Pinsker, we learn that “the number of respondents who most often eat at a kitchen table nowadays is roughly the same as the number who eat either on the couch or in their bedroom.” He also cites as additional evidence “a nationally representative 2013 NPR poll found that even though parents considered it important to dine together as a family, only about half of American children sat down with their family to eat on a typical evening.”
This was the point at which I looked up from the laptop where—as you can guess—I was eating, and sighed deep and long. Family dinners, along with church attendance, are almost the ONLY things my husband and I have kept sacrosanct amid the many compromises we have made in the course of parenting. Admittedly, these dinners have sometimes been bowls of radioactive blue-box macaroni and cheese, and they have been served, at times, with all four of us sitting atop the bed in the master bedroom, watching Shields and Brooks on Friday nights—a lapse, of course, from an earlier ideal. But we have been together. And that’s with two parents working, one with truly quite insane hours, in the third-most-expensive metropolitan area in the United States.
Do I sound sufficiently obstinate by now? My resistance, I confess, comes not from haughtiness (well, maybe just a little), but rather, from fear. Because all those people eating in the bedrooms or on the sofa are, for the most part, not eating with their families while watching the PBS NewsHour.
Rather, they are mostly eating alone. Part of this is because more people are living alone than ever before. But as Pinsker develops, it’s also because people are eating alone, together. Pinsker cites University of Vermont professor Amy Trubek, who has written about the gradual phaseing out of the formal dining room—and the rise, at the same time, of the open-plan kitchen.
That made sense to me, immediately, in a way that I never thought about it before—and it dovetailed with some findings I’ve seen from a wholly different side of the culture: For a while now, I’ve been following with interest a program for girls and women that is offered through the conservative Catholic prelature Opus Dei, which teaches homemaking practices and skills and the philosophical/theological grounding that can undergird them.
I read with interest a research paper on the best conditions for encouraging the practice of family dinners, and the top line of the research was that for dinners to be really successful, they needed not only to be regular, but in a separate room. The open-plan kitchen merely contributed to the phenomenon of “alone together.”
Alone together. That’s the phrase I kept hearing in my head as I sat up late a couple of weeks ago, helping my ninth grade son study for his religion final.
What are the four effects of original sin?
Darkened will, weakened intellect, disintegration, concupiscence.
Disintegration. All of us eating in front of our screens.
But I believe that we can find new ways: community can be intentional even as it is contingent. There are, for example, those gatherings of smokers on the concrete apron outside any suburban office park. What are those, if not a kind of Thanksgiving—with the little rocks on the pathways between the beds of impatiens? The beds laid by the very Latino workmen living in rooms with their own individual locks.
We rise in hopefulness. Awhile back, during a season when we were able to keep our windows open, my husband told me that when he gets up at 2:30 in the morning to get ready and head to work, he heard a throng of laughter being borne over the yards on our street.
He stuck his head out the back door to see, and what he found was this: a group of men gathered together on the back porch, there with beers and snacks. Probably a couple of hours liberated from second shift, and winding down their day.
It went on for weeks, every night. It was truly a Eucharist.
image: Claude Monet, The Dinner, public domain
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Caroline Langston
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.