Family Dinners: The Original Reality Television

So many of my memories seem to revolve around the dinner table. Beginning with my childhood in Queens, New York, growing up in a second-generation Greek family, I have warm memories of dinners with my family.

I may be unusual in this respect, but I can recall vividly so many of those nights. There are three elements to those memories: the people around the table, the conversations, and finally, the food.

For many years my grandmother spent the better part of the day preparing the dinner that my mother, father, brother and I would mostly devour (admittedly, on some occasions, agonize over if it was a dish we hated, usually having to do, for me, with beets, lima beans or any fish with little bones).

The whole hour or two gave me insights into how they and we all interacted. It was unlike the rest of the day’s conversations since, in this case, we were all together. It gave me a wider view of the range of everyone’s personality. I could see, for example, with whom and when my father might have less patience, or whom my mother may be more protective over. I could watch as my brother steadfastly refused to be told what to do. These were things I couldn’t see as clearly in the typical day when my interactions with my family were more one on one.

Dinners were the times too when I found out about so many big events: engagements, upcoming weddings, people who were gravely ill and others who were going to be born, relatives and friends who were in favor – and those who had fallen out of favor. It was reality television – without the television. It was theatre. After an hour or two with no intermission, you left the table.

I must confess, however, that, at the time, I didn’t have a clue that I was participating in a daily ritual whose lessons and memories would stay with me forever. I thought it was just the sideshow.

And then there’s the food: lamb, chicken, spaghetti and (Greek) meatballs, veal cutlets and spaghetti, mussels over orzo, fish (served whole), steak, rice with yogurt, roasted potatoes . . .

And so today, that is why dinners and restaurants are the settings for so many of the scenes in my novels, Death Never Sleeps and Death Logs In (and, later this year, Death Logs Out.) For many readers, they see this as a diversion or an escape from the main story. But, just as with my own life, and probably yours, that setting is as much the story as the story itself.

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