The Battle to Preserve the Table in our Lives

July 1, 2023

Thanks to all of you who added outstanding recommendations to my summer reading blog post. As always, your comments make the post come alive, and I’m grateful. I’ve already read two of the recommendations (On the Road, and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid), and I’m working on a third (Dirt). I’ve included the expanded list at the bottom of this post for those of you who read the post before all of the additions.

One of the many funny yet wistful parts of Bryson’s Thunderbolt Kid focuses on inventions in the fifties and sixties. TV deserves special mention, as it changed everything. In 1950, virtually no households had a TV. By 1952, over one third had them, and it wasn’t long before a majority of homes were entertained by a box. Staying inside became a lot more popular. And then Bryson describes the equally great invention of the TV Dinner, introduced to America in 1954 – “the best bad food ever produced.” He loved them. I loved the idea of them, but it truly was bad food. In four short years, we lost the focus on being outdoors, the role of cooking was dramatically diminished, and then, as Bryson writes, “Some other innovative genius produced special folding trays that you could eat from while watching television, and that was the last time any child – indeed any male human being – sat at a dining room table voluntarily.”

TV did indeed change everything.

Some of my memories of TV include getting up early to watch cartoons on Saturday morning. I ran downstairs, flipped on some lights, turned the TV on, and waited. Before 6:00 AM, the only thing I saw was a test pattern with a picture of a compass-like something and a Native American person. You too can experience my early Saturday mornings as a kid with this awesome YouTube video. (To get the full experience, make sure your sound is on!) Then, just before 6:00, the Star Spangled Banner would play, followed by the boring farm report featuring weather and commodity prices, then came the cartoons! Good living! Another TV memory – my brother Pat reminded me of a rule our Dad had. He would find all four of his kids staring at the TV, and would ask us what we were watching. If we didn’t know (and sometimes we didn’t), he turned the TV off and sent us outside for the rest of the day. Pretty good rule, actually.

Eating dinner in front of the TV was frowned upon in our house. Possibly because the family dinner at our table was important, but also because we could not be trusted. Well, my brother Bill could not. Once, we were going to watch some show or miniseries on TV as a family, and Mom made the bad decision to serve her famous spaghetti Bolognese. (Here’s the recipe.) Bill, who was probably 7 at the time, decided to act like he was tripping as he came into the TV room, then he actually tripped and literally threw his spaghetti, the red sauce, and the plate against the wall. Mom and Dad were apoplectic. We had to act like it wasn’t funny, but damn, it was really funny. We all think it’s hilarious now, even Mom and Dad. Time heals.

Eating dinner at the table has always been important to me as a dad. I mentioned it as one of my 61 Life Lessons. It’s a time to slow down, have a conversation, connect with each other, and hopefully enjoy some excellent food together. I would say we order in once every two weeks, and go out to dinner about the same. So as a family, we tend to cook dinner and sit down at the table at least six nights a week. I love it, and I admit, I’m a bit of a pain in the ass about it. I do get eye rolls for expecting everyone to be at the table the minute dinner is ready. Come on people – dinner should be eaten when it’s perfectly ready! It makes me lovable. Kind of.

I played golf last week with three guys who share my love of the dinner table. In fact, they take that passion to a whole new level and they are actually making a living out of it. Like Bill Bryson and me, they believe the table is a lost part of our culture. We are in too big of a hurry, and we all have too many distractions. They are a remarkably talented bunch – two of them are sommeliers and all three are high level chefs. They are using their skills to bring back the American dinner table, one high level experience at a time. They fly around the country, hunting, fishing, and gathering in their destination, and using their bounty to figure out their menu. They then set up a beautiful outdoor dining environment, cook everything over an open flame, and serve spectacular wines to go with the meal. They seek to create an environment that develops appreciation for local food and local beauty, while fostering an atmosphere of togetherness, meaningful conversation, and eye to eye contact. It sounds amazing. My friend Cathy would call their dinners a “mountaintop experience.” While the artistic level of presentation in our home may not compare at all to theirs, when we prepare a dinner for our friends, our food is very good, the conversation is outstanding, our wine is significantly less expensive (but still excellent) and I’m guessing our meals cost way less per person than the one my new golfing buddies serve. Still if I ever get an invite to a Kiawe Outdoor event, I am immediately RSVPing with an enthusiastic YES!

Last thought – Now that Jill and I are empty nesters, we do eat some of our meals in front of the TV, and yes, we eat on those god-forsaken TV trays. With just the two of us, the table can seem oversized. We are frequent users of the remote control, and we pause often to talk – sometimes about what we are watching, sometimes about our day, sometimes about whatever comes to mind. I’m not sure what to think of this new development. I’m trying to be flexible and open-minded. But I relish any opportunity to eat outside, dine with friends, and be that rare American who actually wants to sit at the table each night with family and friends.

A toast – To the table!

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  1. Dermot Stoker says:

    Eating well is the best revenge, no matter what kind of day you may have endured. My Dad used to say that. Cheers, D.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Your dad had some great ones. And your table is full and beautiful, my friend. Thanks for reading.

  2. Michelle DeHaven says:

    As I was reading your blog, I was thinking about my own family traditions. I too remember the early Saturday mornings of getting up and waiting for the Star Spangled Banner to end so that my favorite show could come on…Lost in Space or Wonderama were some favorites. I think I’m older than you!!
    As far back as I remember, the “dinner table” has always been important and valued. In fact, as I think about it, my 3 siblings and my own family all carried on the family dinner tradition and all of our kids have followed. In fact, I just received the cutest video of our new granddaughter eating her first avocado, you guessed it, “at the dinner table”🥰
    I also relate to the empty nester dilemma of should you eat in front of the tv or not, it’s a slight guilty feeling that I get. We at least pause the tv to say our grateful prayer before we take our first bite (that makes it ok!).
    I enjoy your blogs, thanks for sharing!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I don’t know how old you are, but you certainly look a lot younger than I do. That being said, I think your maturity level is about the same. Thanks for the memories, and it’s nice to see the table mattering in the next generation. I had my first avocado when I was 20, so your granddaughter is way ahead! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Ben Dale says:

    Great article that elicits great memories for me too. I thought TV trays were an essential staple of every home so when my soon to be wife and I registered for bridal gifts, I clicked on the set of tv trays for someone to buy for us. I didn’t even give it pause or a second thought.
    Oh man, my Ohio future in-laws thought I was the biggest HILLBILLY, which yeah ok, but I was surprised at their level of disdain.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Very funny, Ben. My in-laws found out pretty quickly what a hick I was too. Oh well. Better for them to find out early. I hope you’re still enjoying those TV trays!

      1. Ben Dale says:

        No one bought them.

        1. Mike Matthews says:

          Well, that’s just sad. You seem to have recovered and thrived in your life, in spite of that devastating setback. I’m not sure if anything says more about you than your grit in not letting this define your life.

  4. Betty Glass says:

    LOVE IT AGAIN!!! THANKS for great writing, Mike. I’ll let you know when I get through the reading list. Reading and the family dinner table!! Definitely two of my favorite things. bg

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Betty! I appreciate you reading and always love your comments.

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