Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Ted and Julia and your children and mine

Friday, September 4, 2009

Here in Massachusetts we’re understandably thinking a lot about Ted Kennedy. We’re reading and listening to accounts of his many accomplishments and his almost as many challenges. And we’re hearing about his upbringing, including those famous dinner table discussions where the fledgling Kennedys were urged to think seriously about public events and about their own future roles.

Meanwhile, we’re having a Julia moment. We’re in love all over again with Julia Child, getting out those old copies of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or buying new ones. We’re hearing that voice again in our ears, channeled by Meryl Streep, urging us on as we braise and whip and learn to have our way with carnards and poulets.

And the thought came to me that these two zeitgeist moments are not unrelated. In fact,I think they have something profound to tell us. First of all, a case could be made for the similarity between Ted and Julia. Think about it: Each got a start that was not without its delays, its setbacks, its discouragements. Each worked hard on something they were passionate about. And each came to an enormous level of achievement and influence only after years of setbacks and persistence.

But there's another message in their stories: the family dinners.

When American fell under the spell of Julia the first time we had succumbed to the siren call of easy food. Ready-made, heat-and eat, and mixes to make what earlier generations knew how to whip up from scratch. We were ripe for new food adventures, but we were also getting out of the kitchen. And the dining room.

Imagine if Rose had had a 2009-type schedule. Rush home from work. Maybe take John and Eunice to tennis practice, Ted tp a playdate, Jean to the library, and Bobby’s got a soccer game. Maybe she’d leave food out (well, ok,, this is the Kennedys--the cook would leave food out) in the kitchen for when each one got home. Maybe no one would sit at the table but Joe, reading The Wall Street Journal, making a few phone calls with dinner, checking his Blackberry..

But Rose didn’t do that, either because that’s the way she wanted it or because that’s the way the world was then. According to national folklore she sat them all down, Joe at the other end, and they talked. All of them. About the world and its problems. About its opportunities, their own abilities, and the possibility of making the world better. And somehow along with dinner the Kennedy kids got the message that they could make a difference. And that they should.

And so, strangely, here we are in the long shadow of Ted’s public legacy, with Julia luring us back once again into the kitchen. We’re being tempted anew to think of feeding the ones around our table something that demands effort to prepare and time to enjoy. And we’re being given the chance to think about what can happen around a dinner table.

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