A few weeks ago I settled in to read the Times Magazine: Food and Drink Issue in the sun. Sometimes I feel pressured when a publication takes a comprehensive look at a single topic that is of interest to me. But the Times handled their examination into what sustains us in such a way as to make each article, essay and collection of recipes a joy to read.
I don’t like being yelled at by the zealots in the locavore-organic-sustainable foodie movement, but there were excellent pieces on policy and health that were handled in a way that piqued my curiosity. Michael Pollan answered readers’ questions on everything from finding healthy options while on the road to what our food system will be like in 100 years, while Mark Bittman deconstructed the components of several options for a dinner party menu and, Bill Buford’s disgusting tale of eating a bowl of pig’s blood to one side, in between there was so much more to enjoy.
Then I got to a photo essay that I found incredibly poignant. With an introduction by Sam Sifton it was about the importance of the family meal. Families of all cultures, shapes and sizes were enjoying whatever meal they were eating around their tables. It didn’t matter what the menu was, and the food ran the gamut from homemade everything to take-out pizza, the point was that everyone was together. While I found myself smiling at the cute faces of the kids in the various families there was something that irked me; when I was a child we sat down to The Family Meal regularly, only we called it Dinner.
Why does our culture have to take normal behavior and label it with something ripe for marketers? Or maybe it is the other way around. I hate that. It makes everything seem so forced. Shouldn’t it be commonplace for a family to eat dinner together? Now I know life has changed from when I was a child. Kids are over-scheduled, parents get home later from work and some don’t get home at all if they are juggling multiple shifts. But even if we are talking about fewer weekly meals eaten as a group, and even if those meals involve take-out fast food, the point of it is to be together. Not to stop what we’re doing and think, Time for the Family Meal. It’s all so self conscious.
Boys’ Night Out, Girls' Night Out, Date Night, and even Happy Hour all make my skin crawl. When you put a label on what you’re doing it takes you out of the moment and smacks it with a hyper-awareness. My friend Daisy and I used to have a phrase we’d say whenever we had spent time with someone with whom we weren’t completely comfortable or knew only slightly. We called it “I’m with [name of acquaintance goes here] now.” It referred to that feeling you have when you aren’t being totally yourself. That’s what I think Family Meal does to the act of having dinner with your family.
I blame Quality Time. And by that I don’t mean spending time with your kids doing activities you think of as high quality. I mean the term Quality Time. It seems to me it was designed to alleviate the guilt of driven parents who didn’t make enough time for their children during the week and had to carve out two hours a weekend to do something really intense in order to feel like they were giving their kids what they need. I object. And I know that because I don’t have kids I am opening myself up to, “What does she know?!” I don’t care. I still object. I was a child and some of the best times I had with my family were when we were just hanging out: eating pancakes on a Sunday morning and coloring while my dad did the crossword puzzle; singing “Jessie’s Girl” with my sister when we were doing the dishes; helping my brother build a skyscraper with Legos and mashing up the tuna while my mother toasted bread for lunch. The trips to museums and bike rides, stuff of Quality Time, weren’t nearly as much fun and are not what come to mind when I think of my childhood.
Even though my parents had an active social life, and there were plenty of nights I popped a Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza into the oven for my siblings while Mom and Dad were out painting the town red, the majority of dinners involved all of us sitting around the dining table. There were times I resented having such a long break in the evening when I had homework to do (or Dynasty to watch). Dinner started promptly at 7:30pm and by the time the dishes were done it was close to 9pm. (Thanks to Rick Springfield for the entertainment portion of the drudgery).
I’ve mentioned before that my father spent several years working from home and took over the running of the house from my mother. Think of Captain Von Trapp in the kitchen. Laundry was done on Mondays and we had to sort our clothes according to color and leave them in their appropriate pile on the floor in front of the machine. Grocery items were purchased only if they were written on The List. (The List, by the way, was a master inventory of all the items kept in the kitchen on a weekly basis. It was arranged by aisle as it corresponded to the lay-out of our local Gristede’s.) My brother set and cleared the table, my sister and I did the dishes and my father did the cooking. Before he took on this change in role he distributed a questionnaire to my mother and the three of us in which we had to name our favorite meal, vegetable and dessert and those foods we refused to eat. My brother was seven at the time and when I think of his little chicken scratch filling in the space next to Favorite Dinner with “bonles chicken and noodls” I could cry. (Translation--boneless chicken and noodles.) But it worked. My father cooked way too much really good food. And at the end of every meal was dessert. Sometimes it was Pepperidge Farm cookies and fruit, sometimes Sara Lee cupcakes and sometimes this chocolate mousse.
I look at this recipe as a way to make up to all those who complained that last week’s babka was too challenging. If you can’t make it then I really don’t know how to help you. It is beyond easy and can be made in five minutes and then left alone to chill for a few hours. Out of the fridge it is almost like a ganache, which was how we used to like it because the deliciousness lasts longer. For a lighter, mousse-ier feel, let it sit out for a bit. If you insist on Quality Time you can make a big production and prepare it with your kids and then serve it at your next Family Meal. But please don’t. Make it and have it for dessert and don’t put a label on it. Just eat it with those you love. That’s quality.
Dinner Time Chocolate Mousse
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1 cup semisweet or dark chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao)
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or liqueur of your choice
1 cup heavy cream
Place chocolate chips, egg and vanilla/liqueur in blender and blend until chips are small and the mixture looks mushy pebbles. (Not appetizing to look at but don't worry.)
Set aside and remove the little stopper in the blender's lid, replace lid.
Heat cream in a small sauce pan until very hot but do not boil. It should be steaming and there should be little bubbles around the sides.
Turn on the blender and pour hot cream through the lid's hole in a slow, steady stream.
Blend until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Pour into small ramekins, custard cups or demi-tasse cups.
and chill until firm. About 2-4 hours.
Yield: 4-5 depending on cup size. I used four-ounce ramekins and this recipe served 5.