By Ashley McCormack
As a child, I sometimes remember getting frustrated by how tediously my dad worked to make a meal look perfect. He could never just put food down on your plate. Instead, he arranged it beautifully, often wiping the edges of the plate, all while you stood there salivating, eagerly awaiting him to hand it back for you to take it to the table to devour. One day, I impatiently asked him why it mattered, pointing out it was just me eating the food and I was not a fancy guest nor would I judge his presentation. He replied, "Because first, you taste with your eyes."
It took me a minute but I instantly understood and appreciated him for this explanation. I loved that he took pride in each meal he served, even for his young children. It communicated to me that every meal I eat should be fully appreciated, from how delicious it tastes to how delicious it looks. And he is completely right: a beautiful meal just tastes better. As a chef, he was trained to do this and he passed this insight to me. And as part of making such an effort around preparing meals, my dad, along my mom who is a great cook in her own right and cooked often, instilled in me the value of good healthy food. They showed what a gift mealtime is: an important way to nourish both your body and your soul.
Eating in my childhood house was, and still is, always an experience. It is waking up in the morning, sitting at the island in our kitchen with my mom, both of us still yawning as we acclimate to the morning, watching, mystified, as my dad (who has undoubtedly been up for at least three hours) scavenges through the fridge, pulls out random food and somehow creates a masterpiece of deliciousness, pairing flavors and leftovers that the normal you and me could never make look appetizing. And we were always served a plate with SO much food piled on that it could feed an army. My dad is extremely generous and does not understand small - or even edible - portions. (It is an important aside that my dad is a very small, fit man - about 5'6'' and weighing probably 160 pounds. But he can eat more than anyone I know.)
And eating at my house always means sitting at the table, everyone served with beautiful warm food, smelling and looking mouth-watering, while my dad runs around, putting that final touch on each plate and pouring one more person a glass of water, or most classically, trying to find a match to light the candles on the table. In fact, no meal is complete in the McCormack household until my dad has lit candles, even in the middle of the summer when light remains outside. And after our meal is done, we sit at the table for an inordinate amount of time because there is always more to say and laugh about long after we have finished eating.
Growing up, busy was the only way you could describe our house. I am the oldest of three siblings. All of us were actively engaged in sports and our home was the constant host to any and all friends and extended family. But no matter how much was going on, we almost always sat down and ate dinner as a family. Sometimes that didn't include my dad if he was working. Sometimes that didn't include one child who was still at soccer practice or horseback riding. But everyone who was home sat and ate dinner together. If you came home late, a plate was saved for you and my mom would sit with you while you ate your dinner, asking about your day, because she doesn't think that people should eat dinner alone. Because of this, I still hate eating alone. When alone, I miss the amazing opportunity to connect with people, debrief and decompress from the day.
There are numerous studies that stress the importance of family dinners and suggest family dinners are highly correlated with raising happy, healthy, successful, well-adjusted children. This may sound like a stretch, but when you think about it, it makes sense. When I reflect on my childhood family dinners, the only feelings I recall are love and happiness. I cannot remember us ever arguing or fighting at the dinner table. But I do remember telling both good and bad stories of things that happened during our days, learning things about my siblings or relatives I wouldn’t have otherwise known, talking about the news, and most importantly lots of laughter.
When I first moved to California, I lived with my aunt and uncle's family who also values the importance of family dinners. At the start of dinner, they often go around and share the best part of their day, a tradition I love. I love saying what you are thankful for before you eat. I love pausing in front of a nourishing, delicious (hopefully) meal and reflecting on how fortunate you are to be sitting with people you (hopefully) love. On many occasions, I’ve adopted this practice with friends and it always sparks interesting and heartwarming conversation.
As I’ve grown up, my thoughts about food have evolved. I’ve learned about organics and GMOs. I’ve decided that the microwave might be my enemy. And I refuse to store my food in plastic containers or cook in Teflon pans. But my love of homemade food (particularly with all the butter and salt needed) and my love of eating with friends and family has stayed rooted in me since my meals on Drill Field Court. The best part of most of my days is having dinner with loved ones. My favorite part of visiting home is enjoying long dinners with my family. And of course, I cannot bring myself to serve a meal that is not aesthetically pleasing, never forgetting that you first eat with your eyes.