Farewell to the family feast

There used to be a television ad for Hovis showing a hot supper awaiting a child coming in from a cold winter's night to the strains of Dvorak. It had a profound effect on me. A family sitting around the dinner table in a golden glow, wolfing down a hearty stew as they exchange news about a new-born foal and the Christmas fte, was my idea of paradise.

Of course, in my neck of the woods you don't see many foals, and there hasn't been a village fete in Hackney for over a century. I don't even eat Hovis. But in our home, suppertime is the one time of day when the family comes together for conversation, good-natured and otherwise, and - circumstances permitting - a whacking good nosh. With it comes what I call a nourosis, a nagging preoccupation with giving them the right nourishment.Are they getting enough protein? How can I get them to consume iron without noticing? Is a lentil by any other name just as yuk? If I call rabbit "chicken" will they believe me?

According to a recent report, Eating into the Millennium, I'm not typical. Britain appears to be a nourosis-free nation that is not only unconcerned about what children eat in the evening, but has dispensed with family dinnertime altogether. So relaxed are the British about food that one-third scoff takeaways for supper, chosen on the rigorous criteria of whether they can be delivered or not. And they don't sit together to eat it companionably once it arrives, either. Nearly 50 per cent of those surveyed said they perch their supper on their laps as they watch telly, presumably scattered around the house depending on which soap most warms the microwaved cockles of their hearts.

The findings of the report, commissioned by the pharmaceutical giant Roche, moved the author of Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, John Morgan, to denounce today's parents as "lazy" for failing to instil in children the social skills and table manners that come with proper round-table dinnertimes. What he doesn't concern himself with are the socio-economic factors that may fuel this "laziness".

Among the remaining 50 per cent of the population, the ones that still have family dinnertimes, are many ethnic minority families, for whom food is more than something to do with your digestive tract while you watch EastEnders. Elhamiye Mustafa, who is Turkish, cooks every day when she comes home from her job as school assistant. "I know every morning what we're having that evening for supper. Sometimes I prepare things the night before." Her daughter and lodger set the table and, after dinner, they relax with home-made "afters" and Turkish coffee before thanking God for their dinner and praying that everybody in the world had food to eat, too. "Suppertime is the most important time of the day, when we're all gathered.It gives me pleasure," Elhamiye says.

Pleasure is not a word that springs to mind at Salma Patel's dinner table,at which sit her four primary-school-aged children who don't like to eat. "Battleground" is how she describes it. But still, it is a family time together. Living in an extended family with her mother-in-law, she spends a lot of her time preparing dinner - chapattis alone take "forever" - which is eaten at a big table in the dining room. "There's no telly, no radio," she says. Once a week or so, however, she cooks fish and chips, and occasionally they order a pizza. Like Elhamiye, she is a Muslim and all meals are preceded and followed by prayers said by everyone at the table. Also like Elhamiye, she values Christmas Day as a time when the larger extended family comes together, and she will often cook a turkey "but with Indian masalas".

For Lorraine Neil, a second-generation African-Caribbean single mother, dinnertimes are a race against time, trying to get her five-year-old to eat before she falls asleep. It was different when she was a child. "When I was little we used to eat all together. My mum would make traditional West Indian food that took ages to prepare. But then she started working and picked up on the British way of life. After that, the only time we ate as a family was at Christmas."

Today, Lorraine has turned her back on West Indian food. "I'm sick of rice and peas and all that. I cook English at home, but I cook fresh food every day. Dinnertime is special for me as a time to be with my child. I've recently taken to turning off the telly while we eat, and our conversation is much better now."

While Dvorak may be silent in a lot of British kitchens and dining rooms, there is still room for Hovis in many homes, although it may look more like chapattis, pittas, patties or ciabatta.

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