Globe Syndicate

for release Friday January 9, 2004

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

Did Cave Kids Know What Dinner Was?

I feel strongly that the invention of TV, the advent of the automobile, and the modern industrial age have almost demolished the family dinner. Eating dinner while watching TV all but abolishes conversation, and makes eating an individual rather than community experience. The automobile, which launched our mobile society, and the growth of restaurants and fast food chains (and prepared, packaged foods), has led to more and more people just grabbing dinner on the run. And our modern industrial/information age (as opposed to agricultural times when people stopped working at sundown) means families have family members working at all hours of the day and night. There is no time for dinner.

But I wanted to dig into history a little: did cave kids know what dinner was? From everything that we know about these early peoples, certainly gathering around a fire at the end of the day or at the conclusion of a hunt would indicate that eating together has long been a social experience among humans.

Fast forward to about 2,000 years ago on the North American continent. Research shows that Pacific northwest coastal natives, for one example, probably had two communal meals a day: one early, after their morning work was done, and the second meal of the day at sundown, after the day’s work had ceased. Here is a description:

“The men would sit down first, at the mat. Before coming to the table, they had to wash their hands and face, twice. Before coming to the table, they would take a long drink from the drinking bucket, and then they would sit down. (It was not considered good manners to drink at the table.) Once the men were served, the women would join them at the mat. The family talked to each other during meals. It was a social time, a time to relax a bit. They quite often invited people from outside their family to meals.” From )

Another place we can get information is the Bible. In Genesis all members of a household were included in the designation of “family” and would have included concubines (live-in mistresses), servants, slaves, visitors, and prisoners of war if necessary. There was polygamy and that made the family unit even more complicated.

Then too, family could refer to the entire clan or tribe. So a household could literally encompass an entire nation. Members of a clan accepted a communal responsibility for other members, including assistance in time of need, protection, sharing work, loyalty.

However, as families became smaller, as they certainly were by New Testament times, people began to think more of “Mom, Dad and children” as family. One main meal, but more of a “supper” was eaten at sundown during New Testament times, when the workers had come in from the field. It was the time of day for the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, of the eating of the Passover, and of the partaking of the Lord's Supper. According to Jewish law, and for special reasons, the chief meal was at midday—“at the sixth hour,” according to the historian Josephus (from George B. Eager,

In the movie version of the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most moving and vivid scenes is the family participating in a Passover meal. … Family members scurry to make it to table by sundown. (Who said earlier generations really had more time or were less stressed?) Plain, down-to-earth Golde reigns like a bride at the meal. Children ask the ritual questions. The mundane and even impoverished home takes on an atmosphere (helped of course by movie lighting) of beautiful, earthy, still-life painting. The profane, ordinary food is transformed into sacred fare.

And if you look around the world, all cultures and societies have rituals or celebrations involving food or feast days: weddings, funerals, birthdays, coronations. We will indeed have lost something very precious, very ancient, and a certain aspect of civilized behavior if we lose the art of having a decent meal together. Food gives us life.

Someone has pointed out that meals prepared and served to a group of people or a family take on a certain ritual: food is prepared, the table is set, people are called to the table, prayers or grace are said, the food is passed. Rituals like this bring people together with common, routine experiences that can be a calming balm after a busy day. Eating food together is a bonding experience, can ease tension, make conversation go easier, make strangers less self-conscious. Mealtime may be one of the oldest rituals known to humans.

It is still early in the New Year, a great time to start a new or renewed custom for your family: find time to eat together at meals, and make it as often as you can. If evening doesn’t work for you, try breakfast, or weekend meals.

This is your last chance to ask for a free wall calendar from Another Way for 2004. Send to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail:

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.

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