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Nunc Dimittis

Tables for Twelve

On family dinner.


For years, I’ve found that the most enjoyable regular column in the New Yorker is “Tables for Two,” which runs at the front of the book. Its format is simple: each week a contributor to the magazine eats at a different restaurant in the city and writes up a short profile of the meal or the chef or whatever else strikes his or her fancy. Stars are given or subtracted and dishes are recommended—but that’s not really the point. Tables for Two is a casual column, designed to ease couples into dining with a sensible chuckle. 

Sometimes I wonder if such a column could be written with a large family in mind. I think of my own, for example. When we eat out, which is not often, it is almost invariably an intergenerational affair. You have me, my wife, and my daughter, of course. We’re usually accompanied by my parents, and, at the best of times, my six siblings as well. Every so often, a grandmother tags along too. When we were all young, we piled into a blue fifteen-passenger van that in many parking lots occupied two spots. These days, now that we are all grown and moved out, we descend on the restaurant in five different S.U.V.s.

Whatever establishment we enter, be it the Palm or IHOP, much is made of our appearance. No one ever bothers to call ahead, which always means chaos at the front door. The hostess summons a second hostess, and we are shepherded to the back of the restaurant, nearest to the bathroom and out of the sight of the other patrons. (In the last days of smoking sections, we were sometimes dropped in there as well.) Tables are pushed together and anything extraneous—or breakable—is removed from their surfaces. We have never minded this treatment: we are a loud bunch, and more often than not a meal ends with a broken or at least spilled glass.

Not that it matters much. Except on the rarest of occasions—birthdays, feasts, and after funerals—we all drink water. When I was much younger, my mother lectured us in the car on the way to the restaurant: “Fountain drinks are a scam,” she said. “If you must have a soda, we’ll order one for the table—and you can all share.” She applied a similar rule to food. We were never permitted our own plates because, after all, children never finish their meals. Neither rule is still enforced, but both have become a way of life. I can’t remember the last time I ordered a soda at a restaurant. And the decidedly foreign custom of sharing plates, which only recently has become trendy, has never seemed strange to me. 

As the years have worn on, our customs have shaped our tastes to the point that when you find the Rowans out for dinner, it is almost invariably at a downmarket pizza joint where beer is served in pitchers. (We are even known sometimes to meet up at the Costco food court.) Our conversation is light, though not exactly coherent. Sometimes our friends politely describe the table talk as spirited and enthusiastic. My wife is more direct in her assessment. She likens the babble to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, though my family’s re-interpretation is not quite on the level of Pet Sounds

I remember once, though, we did go somewhere nicer, one of the few Michelin-starred places near Washington, D.C. The exact nature of the occasion escapes me, but the meal lasted for something like five hours, many speeches and toasts were delivered, and, by the time the coffee and cognac made their way around the table, all the other patrons had left and the waitstaff were clearing away their tablecloths. When my father rose to retrieve his coat, it occurred to me that every other meal out was perhaps a rehearsal for this one. This dinner was a spectacle, overflowing with emotion, a public manifestation of everything that makes my family whole. I still think about it years later at other, lesser meals, re-running the scenes in my mind and still enjoying that one evening with a little inward chuckle.

Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp.

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