Some of my favorite Norman Rockwell prints all have something to do with eating, but not for the reasons you might think.
Rockwell provided comical and heart-warming illustrations of American culture for the Saturday Evening Post for more than four decades. My all-time favorite Rockwell print depicts an American family gathered at the table for Thanksgiving dinner.
Grandpa is standing at the head of the table as Grandma delivers an enormous roasted turkey on a platter. The faces of at least five generations can be found in that picture. Like most of his prints, it was a snapshot of what America used to look like.
That thought makes me sad.
Meal time used to be family time, and families are the foundation this country was built on. When we were a mostly agrarian society, families gathered for breakfast after the “young’uns” gathered the eggs and Daddy fed the livestock. Mama was busy making cathead biscuits to go with grits, eggs and bacon. By the time morning chores were done and hands were washed, breakfast was ready. Everyone then gathered at the table for Daddy to “say grace.”
It’s too bad it’s not that way today. Daddy — if there is a daddy — sleeps in from having worked the late shift, or he’s already up and gone to work. Mama has her own job to get ready for, so kids are left to get themselves up and dressed for school, usually with little more than a cold bowl of cereal for breakfast.
Providing a so-called “free” breakfast at school is a poor substitute for the family time kids once got before they walked to school. Now they’re herded onto yellow buses and transported to institutions more concerned with standardized tests than actually teaching them to read, write and decipher mathematical equations without dependence on digital devices.
A mere 50 or 60 years ago, lunchtime at school was something to look forward to as it was planned and prepared by ladies who were themselves moms and knew how to cook good food, though maybe not to today’s nutritious but tasteless standards. Kids really were learning something in those days and actually needed brain food like the fried fish fillets, seasoned greens and corn bread once typical of school lunches. Cafeteria workers knew what politicians don’t — kids aren’t rabbits and don’t want rabbit food.
Back home back then, Mama kept the house in order, or she assisted Daddy on the farm or with the family business. They stopped what they were doing around noon, though, so they could have a meal together, just the two of them.
In those days, they didn’t plan “date nights” when they could go out together. They were always together in a way, though just not alone as a couple, except during the lunch hour.
Supper was the big meal of the day. And though not quite the feast depicted in Rockwell’s painting, Mama worked hard to prepare at least one meat, potatoes or rice, and one or two green vegetables. When kids came home from school, they grabbed a snack and started their homework until Daddy came in from the fields, shop or office.
Mama’s call to supper was like a rally cry for soldiers. After everyone gathered around the table, grace once again was said, usually asking God’s blessings on the food and family.
For most American families today, supper’s not the same. In my own house, supper is the only meal we’re able to come together as a family, except on Saturday and Sunday — especially Sunday.
When our older children visit us with their kids, a feast is in order. The meal, though, is not just the delicious food that’s set on the table. It’s the blessing of family — our foundation. The fact that few American families enjoy meals together anymore is an indication that our families are falling apart. Our crumbling foundation explains why our country itself is falling apart.
I wonder what a Rockwell snapshot of American culture would look like today.
Email Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.