Around the table: Experience the pleasure of the meal and the conversation

It was one of those significant birthdays that needed to be special beyond the usual. My husband and I had decided to rent a small house, just the two of us, on the coast. Then we learned our French son-in-law and our twin grandsons, age 6, were going to be on their own for the long Memorial Day Weekend, my birthday weekend, so we invited them to join us and rented a larger house.

I loaded the car with coolers of freshly dug potatoes, artichokes and herbs from the garden, homemade jam, honeycomb, tomatoes from a Winters greenhouse grower, a tri-tip roast from the Buckhorn Steakhouse, smoked salmon someone had just sent me from Ireland, a bagful of Mariani Nuts almonds, various cheeses, olive oil and olives, early-season corn on the cob, pasta and a thick, homemade Bolognese pasta sauce, ready for the night of their arrival. They were coming from San Francisco after school on Friday, so I wanted to be prepared.

As I put away the groceries, I leaned for a moment on the kitchen island, letting myself be embraced by the sweeping ocean view with its thin wisps of fog curling around the jutting rocks. Only a large table for eight sat between me and the windows framing the view. That table would come to be the centerpiece of our days.

Once unpacked, my husband and I had a celebratory glass of Champagne, and toasted my next decade as we sat bundled on the outside porch, enjoying the scent of the sea and the moist, sweet air.

Sure enough, just after 8 p.m., Laurent and the boys arrived. After excited hugs and kisses, an exploration of the house and their rooms, and a show-and-tell of what they had in their little backpacks, Laurent sat the boys down at the table alongside him. I quickly cooked the pasta and warmed the sauce. My husband poured Champagne for Laurent, milk for the boys. I put out some olives and almonds, which they all snacked on until the pasta was ready to serve.

Laurent had brought baguettes with him, and salad greens, so we sliced the bread and I made vinaigrette and a salad. The boys ate everything. Since they are half French, and cheese is such an important part of French life, and typically follows a meal, I set out some cheeses. Oscar chose a blue cheese, Raphael some goat cheese, and Laurent a little of both. Still, we stayed at the table. I offered some fruit, which was accepted. Laurent helped the boys cut the apple, and they helped themselves to cherries. Then, after their meal, they were excused to play and explore a bit before heading off to bedtime stories.

This set the rhythm of our days. Three meals a day, all sitting down together, interspersed with forays to tide pools, beaches, puzzles, reading, drawing and even watching little movies on the iPad one lazy afternoon.

My husband cooked breakfasts to order. Raphael always opted for soft boiled eggs, while scrambled was Oscar’s preference. Bacon was polished off, along with bagels and cream cheese, jam, and always some fruit and yogurt. They were proper breakfasts, a meal I personally, to my chagrin, often skip at home.

For lunch the first day I made smoked salmon salad, which Oscar declared really good and had several helpings of extra salmon. Raphael ate a little salmon, but lots of tomatoes and the special toast I had made, followed with fruit and cheese.

Dinner that night included steamed baby artichokes.

“Grandma Georgeanne, why didn’t you make more?” asked Oscar as he finished his fourth, along with the mashed potatoes made from potatoes he and his brother had helped to plant months earlier.

The next day at lunch, I suggested we go outside to eat. No, Laurent preferred the boys stay inside. Taken aback a bit, I wondered why. Then, once we were all seated at the dining room table, I realized it was more than a meal. It was a teaching opportunity, and training about staying at the table for the pleasure of the meal and conversation, best done without distractions. The outdoor play time was separated by coming inside to eat and converse.

The long weekend caused me to reflect why the French, and one could extend it to European, ritual of mealtime is so different than the usual American experience. During our weekend together, we all ate the same food. Some of it was new to the boys, but they sampled it and then ate with gusto. Food was not separated into kid food and adult food, nor were there kid tables and kid mealtime. I had raised my children that way, and, while they didn’t always eat everything, especially my son, we all ate together, every day. That was just the way it was.

From their earliest age, I had observed that my grandsons were being introduced to new flavors and tastes by their parents. As Laurent said one day, “It’s important they taste different things to develop their palates.” My daughter made their baby food, as her French mother-in-law did – seasoning zucchini with salt and just a dash of nutmeg, carrots pureéd with a hint of ginger. Good, flavorful food never comes too early for the French, nor do they see any reason not to eat good food, no matter how young or how old they might be.

A couple of months ago I heard Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center, being interviewed on NPR about his new book, “Fat Chance” in which he deplores the reach and power of processed food, and its destructiveness to our increasingly obese and health-challenged nation. I was particularly struck by his comments about a popular baby formula that had almost as much sucrose as a Coke, and popular baby foods that have added sugars and/or starchy fillers to their fruits and vegetables.

The interviewer asked, “Is it possible to make our own baby food at home?” This was a question that would never have been asked in France, nor would it have been asked in the United States 50 years ago – and certainly not asked in most parts of the world. As my son would say, “Definitely a first-world question.”

For the French, the cultural appreciation of food begins at the earliest age possible. It is part of home life, school life, even the school curriculum. There is a national week of taste in France, “Le Semaine du Gout,” when restaurants, cities, villages, towns and schools across France educate about and celebrate regional flavors, producers and products.

In early July of this year Guillaume Garot, France’s junior minister for the food industry visited a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Queens, N.Y., where he sampled a school lunch of barbecued chicken, plantains, fruits and vegetables. Very graciously, his comments included that the “vegetables have taste.” (I suspect he was thinking they wouldn’t.)

Garot went on to note that more than 6million children in France’s public schools enjoy their fare on plates rather than Styrofoam trays, and lunch always includes an hors d’oeuvre, entree and dessert. I would add that they also use actual knives, forks and spoons, rather than plastic sporks (a combination utensil that is spoon shaped with truncated fork tines). Schoolchildren in France also have up to an hour and a half to eat and enjoy their meal, and are required to spend a minimum of 30 minutes seated at the table.

They are, in effect, being trained to have a sit-down meal that is a social event, not simply food for fuel. This style of social, sit-down, conversational lunch was honored in 2010 by UNESCO when it included “lunch in France” on its list celebrating the world’s intangible cultural heritages.

As a nation, at home and at school, have we abandoned the notion of a meal as a social experience? Has grab-and-go – with its cardboard boats, plastic utensils, waxed cups and clamshell containers, whether from Styrofoam or from 100percent recycled, biodegradable material that can be disposed of while on the go – triumphed over sitting down to a meal with plates, forks and knives, glasses and cups that will need to be washed, dried and used again? Has eating on the run taken the place of sitting down with others to share a meal?

I think we must still culturally value the concept of a meal and its implications as an occasion – otherwise McDonald’s would not have come up with the successful term “Happy Meal.” Pre-cooked, packaged food ready to take home and warm up is aptly named “Home Meal Replacement,” but I ask, can a home meal really be replaced?

Michael Pollan, in his new book “Cooked” has a segment devoted to just that. He calls it Microwave Night. He and his wife and son each selected a frozen, home meal replacement entrée item, plus a soup and dessert for the son, and then set about microwaving their dinner. They found that dinner to be a highly individualistic and disjointed experience. Never able to get the entrees and soup warm and ready to eat at the same time, they wound up taking turns watching the microwave and stovetop, and eating while the food was still hot, but not together.

For the French, and for me, meals are a social experience. I take great pleasure in preparing the meal, no matter how simple, then sitting down at the table with people I care about, sharing the events of our day, discussing events, movies, books, sports – anything really. It’s part of being together. A meal around the table is an opportunity to socialize children and make the pleasures of a real home meal part of their heritage and future.

It’s time for us as a nation, as individuals and as institutions to take back the kitchen, and learn or relearn to cook. It’s not difficult, can take less time and is a lot more all-round fun than purchasing ready-made, processed foods with throw-away containers.