I'm in the middle of writing a column about the importance of family dinners, and I really wanted to include some of the amazing observations of Theodore Dalrymple (real name Anthony Daniels) who has worked as a psychiatrist in the British penal system.
He has written an essay on family meals, "The Starving Criminal", that can be read here. Unfortunately he didn't make the cut. When you have only 700 words to work with, you can't always be as profound as you may wish. But what he wrote is worth further attention.
Here's part of his take on the link between criminality and family meals:
In fact, he told me that he had never once eaten at a table with others in the last 15 years. Eating was for him a solitary vice, something done almost furtively, with no pleasure attached to it and certainly not as a social event. The street was his principal dining room, as well as his trash can: and as far as food was concerned, he was more a hunter-gatherer than a man living in a highly evolved society.
Far from being unique, his story was typical of those that I have heard hundreds—no, thousands—of times. Another young man, also expelled from home at an early age because his new stepfather, only a few years older than he, found him surplus to requirements, had been obliged to drift from friend’s house to friend’s house for six years. Unfitted by training or education for any particular job, he had worked only casually, for a few weeks at a time, and so never had the financial stability to pay rent on a place of his own (in conditions of shortage, public housing goes preferentially to young single women with children, and he had made the situation worse by having two children of his own by two young women). Needless to say, he had no domestic skills either, never having been taught any; and his friends, coming from the same social milieu, were just as undomesticated. They too ate in an unsocial fashion and expected him to fend nutritionally for himself, which he did by eating chocolate, the only food he could remember having eaten with any consistency over the last few years. Apart from his time in prison (for stealing from cars), he hadn’t eaten a meal in a decade. It can’t be long before someone suggests that the solution to a problem like this is to fortify chocolate with minerals and vitamins.
There is a cultural phenomenon going on here where food as a socially positive ritual is abandoned. I'm going to go out on a limb and say something for which I have very little socially scientific research (if there is such a thing), but I feel it in my gut.
Food is what separates functional families from dysfunctional families. Think about it this way: in order to cook a decent meal, you have to know how to read a recipe. You have to be motivated enough to go to a grocery store. You have to actually cook the meal and serve it. Then, you all have to sit at a table together (Dalrymple claims that 34% of British families do not own a dining table) and eat it. It provides time for you to connect, to talk, to learn that others care about you, and to learn important manners. That's what I'm talking about in my column next week, so I'm not going to dwell on it here.
But if you cook home-cooked meals, you're more likely to be healthy and less likely to be overweight. In other words, it means that parents care about the children's health; are organized enough to give the children a schedule; are careful with their budget; and want to connect as a family.
Too many families don't cook anymore. They reheat frozen food and that's not the same thing. It means that the families aren't giving priority to something that is so conducive to family togetherness.
Interestingly, I think one of the reasons many people are poor and stay poor is that they lack basic food skills, like cooking and scheduling, and they lack the motivation to go acquire those skills. I taught myself to cook from a cookbook. I read tons of cookbooks when I was in university. I used to get them out of the library. And that's how I became a good cook. It didn't cost me anything; money wasn't the issue. It was motivation combined with some basic life skills.
I have a friend who is a dietician, and when she worked for the Public Health Unit she often put on information nights called "2 can dine for $1.99", and stuff like that, where they taught basic recipes and cooking for inexpensive but healthy meals. They advertised in the welfare office, in the unemployment office, and with Children's Aid. And you know who came? Homeschoolers with their parents. Their parents thought: hey, great way to teach my kids some extra life skills! So they missed their target audience entirely because their target audience didn't care.
And because they didn't care, they were in that bracket of her target audience. If they did care, it's unlikely they would have stayed poor.
I know that sounds judgmental, but I think poverty and crime have become cultural issues, not economic ones. We aren't teaching people the value of relationships, and we aren't teaching people motivation, and we aren't teaching people life skills. And after a certain time, they fail to want to acquire these things.
In relation to all this, and tied in with my recent item on Learned Helplessness, I thought his next to concluding paragraph to be right on the mark:
The liberal intelligentsia has several reasons for failing to see or admit the cultural dimension of malnutrition in the midst of plenty—in failing to see its connection with an entire way of life—and in throwing the blame instead onto the supermarket chains. One reason is to avoid confronting the human consequences of the changes in morals, manners, and social policy that it has consistently advocated. The second is to avoid all appearance of blaming people whose lives are poor and unenviable. That this approach leads it to view those same people as helpless automata, in the grip of forces that they cannot influence, let alone control—and therefore as not full members of the human race—does not worry the intelligentsia in the least. On the contrary, it increases the importance of the elite’s own providential role in society. To blame the supermarket chains is implicitly to demand that the liberal and bureaucratic elite should have yet more control over society.
Subscribe to my feed by clicking above!
Labels: cooking, eating, poverty