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  • Until I came to college, I didn’t realize the role that family dinners played in my life, and beyond that, how absent this routine was in most of my peers’ lives. Family dinner was non-negotiable in my house. Every night, no matter what type of day I had, regardless if I was hungry or hated the meal being served, my parents, sister and I would sit together for at least thirty minutes and eat together. The food, thanks to my brilliant father, was typically superb and the conversation standard. We would discuss our days, our musings or our grievances. My sister would make up some joke for us or my mom would regale us with stories from the theater (he office). The family dinner table served as the platform for many a discussion and argument. It was a pedastal where we could marvel at my father’s culinary creations. We would work through issues as a unit while, excuse the cliché, breaking bread together. Family dinners were not so much a time when we would eat but rather an institution that molded my family into the unit it is today.
    I never really had an issues with family dinners. That is until I entered my teenage year. As a 14 year old, with many important social engagements to attend to, I found this practice infuriating. I did not understand the importance of sitting at the table even if I wasn’t hungry and refused to eat (a dramatic practice that did happen semi-regularly in my angsty teen years). But now, looking back, I miss those dinners. I look forward to taking trips home and sitting with the family, now drinking a glass of wine, and just talking. I relish the time spent with the people I love most doing the thing I love most, eating. It’s a tradition that I will unquestionably enforce in my household. The table served as a binding agent, a place where the family would convene and be forced to interact. Even as I become more absorbed in school, extracurriculars, friends, boys and facebook, I had to put down my cell phone for an hour every day and talk. It brought my family together in the midst of all of our hectic agendas.
    It was at the table that I developed a deep and ongoing love affair with food. Growing up, I was a very picky eater. My mother called it finicky. I did not like foods that were mushy, yellow or spicy. Foreign vegetables and strangely colored forms were out of the question. Blue cheese, bananas, avocados, olives and hot dogs were all detestable, unthinkably horrendous imitations of food. Luckily for me though, my parents were, and still are, unrelenting foodies. Having a “finicky” child in their household was not an option. Food is something that my parents, and now I, have the utmost respect for. It’s almost a religion. The table is our altar.
    In the Perez home, not eating something on the basis that it’s “yucky” is not a valid excuse. My parents did not cater to my sister and I. If they made steak and an arugula salad with champagne vinaigrette, that’s what we all had. Salad with blue cheese was a staple; a staple I forced down and gagged my way through countless times. My parents rejected the idea that a child doesn’t like vegetables just because they are vegetables. Brussels sprouts were never presented as a means to a dessert end. The “just try it” method also was nonexistent in the Perez home. I had to consistently eat something, many times over, to prove that I truly just didn’t like it. Certain foods, blue cheese and bananas for instance, I still don’t like; but without my parents relentless food pushing, I wouldn’t like olives, spinach, gruyere, fois gras, and probably the majority of dishes I eat now. If I outright refused to eat what was presented to me, I did not get an alternative. Not validating the “picky eater” argument instilled a sense of reverence for food. A realization of the work and effort that went into getting the food onto my plate and a somber sense that food was not limitless. This is a practice I believe that Americans overlook and need to revisit.
    Because of family dinners, I developed an earnest interest in cooking. My father’s adoration of all things Alice Waters gave me a sound foundation to begin my culinary education. I wanted to contribute to family dinners, so my first cooking lessons began in my own kitchen with my father as my instructor. My father’s deep love of fine food was quickly passed on as he taught me to julienne and sear. Alice Waters via my dad taught me that the best ingredient is a fresh one. That Meyer lemon juice and good olive oil is better than ranch any day, a tomato in December is unthinkable and a perfect béarnaise takes time and practice.
    Without family dinners I doubt I would have ever become an avid novice chef. I would never have developed as rich a regard for food and the preparation that goes into it. My conversational skills wouldn’t be where they are today without those nightly assemblies.
    The family table was our altar. The dining room was our church. The four of us came together every night to take communion together. Many nights the conversation was lackluster or tense but we still had it. It brought my family together in a way I can’t imagine any other institution or tradition being capable of. Family dinners seem to be on the way out, this is a tragedy in my mind. Family dinners instill a deep sense of connection and togetherness. Cooking a meal together is a way to teach respect of food, preparation and what got the food to the table initially. It teaches restraint and moderation. The family dinner is a tradition that will live on in my home and in my parents’. I just hope that the rest of America can rediscover this brilliant ritual.
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