Everyone is gathered around the table, waiting for something that’s just come out of the oven or out of a bubbling pot on the stove. Someone is talking, someone else can’t wait to get up and leave, someone else is staring at the plate with barely concealed irritation. The menu may change, but one thing is always the same: a family meal – whether it’s lunch or dinner – is a ritual that hardly anyone can escape from. It’s a ritual that has always been a topical moment in the daily life of a nuclear family. But is it still really like that?
Nothing better than television can help to answer this question. Over the last 15 years, tv has brought dozens and dozens of different families onto the screen. They may be clichéd in some ways, but if they are inspired by reality they can be considered a mirror of society in evolution. And what’s left of our family dinners?
It was the year 1996 when, gathered around a dinner table between an “amen” and a sermon, the Camden family made their television debut. The series 7th Heaven, produced by the old WB, became a successful prime-time show, a competitor to Beverly Hills 90210, which also took place in California. But the imaginative town of Glen Oak spoke a totally different language than Hollywood’s most famous high school: the language of the traditional family. And for the reverend Eric Camden and his children (a family who, in the collective television viewers’ minds, became emblematic of traditional puritanism), dinnertime was the most homey, cosy, and sacred moment of the day. Literally.
The table actually became the centre of the action, the backdrop against which new plot twists were revealed and characters were defined. And for Annie Camden, food was an essential, tangible part of being a mother, a wife and family advisor. Abandoning the table was a sign of crisis. And it was between a chicken thigh and a turkey sandwich that the rebellious daughter Mary was forced to admit her troubles with the law.
Exactly ten years later, in 2006, another “family” series, Brothers & Sisters, often revolves around the kitchen. Along with the dining room table, it’s a room that becomes a character – just as much as the actors are: there’s not an episode where we don’t see the Walker family eating, and we already know that – along with carefully prepared, handmade delicacies and accompanied by another bottle of wine – something is bound to happen.
Compared to the perfect wife and mother embodied by Annie Camden, the matriarch Nora Walker breaks away from this mould and takes a few important steps ahead: hyper-energetic and passionate about cooking, she’s a strong, decisive, determined woman – a feminist and anti-conformist – and never just a passive observer of her own life. For Nora, the kitchen is a place of catharsis, a port in a storm, a place to exorcise any kind of tragedy, fear or drama. Whether it’s the trauma of a son coming back from the war in Afghanistan, the pain for her widowed daughter or the financial failure of the family business, her way of dealing with the issue at hand rarely varies: there’s nothing that can’t be cured with a roasted turkey. In the Walker home, the table itself is a symbol of the “new” American family. And this kind of traditionalism looks quite different than that of the reverend Camden and his sin-free progeny. It’s a problematic and patriotic matriarchy, a family that doesn’t only “unite” around the hearth of the dinner table. The table is also a setting for conflict, for comfort, for the distinction between good and bad. The table represents both freedom as well as ties with the clan.
Just three years later, in 2009, the mood changes and along comes the show Modern Family – and provides a much-needed “dramedy”, a portrait of what contemporary family life looks like in America. Strange, different and ironic, it’s a family where the hearth has ceased to exist: the family dinner has become a fragmented ecosystem made up of tacos and peanut butter sandwiches. A dinner is the narrative means by which all the distinct and separate pieces of a great familial mosaic are brought together in one place.
Each character in the series gives a different value to food. For Jay, not exactly a role model, a bit of a grumpy father with a heart of gold, his idea of food is the traditional kind found in California eateries, enjoyed with a bit of Mexican flavour, thanks to the contribution of his new, hot young wife, Gloria. The food in Modern Family is the pepperoni pizza ordered by the oddball Phil Dunphy, it’s the stir-fries prepared by the stay-at-home dad, Cameron, for his partner Mitchell.
The Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado family is the epitome of a modern family, he kind that a 21st Century viewer can (maybe) identify with. It’s the real, hectic family, the kind that never stops, but that is still full of love despite all the obstacles. It’s a family that changes, that adapts, that tries to survive in a complicated environment without missing a beat, a family that still tries to educate and encourage and share. Even if it’s just over tacos or a frozen