We’ve been to a few dinner events this past month. Like our oldest commented when he asked what we’d been doing and I told him, “There’s always time to go out to eat, isn’t there?” The implication was there’s no time to do anything exciting, but easy to attend a dinner function. I hated to tell him that my life has merged into eating and TV and eating and sleeping and eating and … I’ll be glad to see SPRING! Even with the really odd winter we’ve had, it has been difficult to challenge myself to get out and DO something, exciting or otherwise.
But dinner functions offer a certain social interaction that we don’t always get to enjoy. For one thing we might see people we don’t see often, and we see the familiars in a new scene. Some of the guys even wore ties, and a lady or two had on a skirt. But this mid- January, nobody was wearing Xtra-Tuf boots and not many down vests were apparent.
The conversation is a little different than usual, although “remember whens” are still in the air. At one of the dinners a gentleman mentioned that when he was in the military, they were cautioned that you’d be identified as American if, when you cut your meat, knife in right hand, fork in left, you returned the fork to your right hand. (I think I read a spy story like that once.) We all laughed self-consciously, watching to see if that is, in fact, how we do it … and of course it is. But that led to many memories about what mom said … “don’t talk with your mouth full,” ”take your elbows off the table,” “don’t chew with your mouth open.” And we all remembered the finer points of table manners instilled in us as we grew up: butter only half a piece of bread at a time; don’t tip your soup bowl, or if you must, tip it outward; start with the fork on the outside; napkin on your lap. That led to stories about the first dinner parties we’d attended where the table was dressed in full formal dinner setting including many glasses, dessert utensil at the top of the plate, forks galore out to the left, and more than one knife; plates were added and removed for each course and your cup was on the right. We all had our own horror stories about mistaking the finger bowl for soup, or using the dessert spoon to stir sugar into our coffee and stabbing olives with the seafood fork. Because we all had rather humble rural beginnings, we easily related to the stories of social faux-pas’ that probably everyone has made at one time or another and we had a good laugh at our fancy dining ignorance in our younger days. No one admitted to “saucering and blowing” their coffee, but everyone remembered an uncle or grandfather who did.
Another of the dinners brought about the discussion of regional differences in how certain foods are prepared. It’s a “for sure” with any group of older Alaskans that nearly every area of the Lower 48 will be represented. It doesn’t take a learned ear to distinguish accents from just about everywhere. And food preferences (or is that idiosyncrasies?) persist. We’ve all long since made a choice between New England clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder and probably also between sweet tea and plain old iced tea (no sugar please). Some areas make their chili with tomatoes and onions cooked in, others serve them on the side. Midwesterners eat their french fries with mayonnaise while most of the rest of us use ketchup and some even use vinegar. Someone puts gravy on his rice, another, fresh tomatoes in the scrambled eggs. One of mom’s cousins mixed grape jelly with his cottage cheese.
I remember way back when, the “talking heads” speculated that in two generations everyone in the U.S. would all sound alike because of television. That has not come to pass, except everyone on television sounds alike, but one thing TV has done is make our eating habits much more universal with cooking shows on every channel and commercials for foods that before TV we may never have heard of. (Think fancy coffees and pomegranate juice.) We didn’t find fresh peaches at the local grocery store any time but late summer when I was growing up, nor all the many spices available today, or even more than white or “brown” bread. It’s easy to try an exotic recipe these days because the supermarket will probably have the ingredients and even “buy local” brings cantaloupe all year and Greek yogurt in the refrigerator case.
But with all the variety available, nothing can beat our regional comfort foods. I drank “pop” and ate toasted cheese sandwiches in my youth. My granddaughter drinks “soda” and eats “grilled cheese.” TV has given the names a universality but the food remains the same. I drink cocoa; she drinks hot chocolate but we both put marshmallows on top!
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai. Email her at email@example.com.