My culture shock at the dinner table


Graphic by Alex Silber.

When I moved to the U.S., I was shocked at the lack of homemade, sit-down meals.

By David Villani

I’ve seen a lot of weird things in this country since I moved here from Italy. The constant optimism and cheerfulness, the intense patriotism, the freezing air conditioning in the summer and overpowering heating in the winter—all these things are still bizarre to me. But there’s one American quirk that I find strangest of all: food.

I come from a culture where food is a fundamental part of our identity and where dinner is a shared experience. Every day, my entire family comes together to enjoy a fresh meal and each other’s company. The meal is prepared from scratch, usually consisting of a meat or pasta dish followed by fresh fruit and cheese. Even though both my parents come home from work late, they always prepare something, because family dinner is as natural as getting up or going to school.

Coming to America, where family dinners are comparatively rare, was a shock. Making generalizations is dangerous, but from what I’ve seen, American dinners are less communal. People tend to eat on their own, and the food is often either takeout or a ready-made meal.

Finding out my friends’ dining habits is always somewhat of a traumatic event for me. A few months ago, I was Facetiming a friend late at night and I noticed she was eating something. With considerable naiveté, I meekly asked her what she was eating at such a late hour. A bowl of plain cereal, she said. It was her dinner, she said.

I was horrified. I ran to tell my parents, and they too were aghast. Cereal for dinner is sacrilege for my Italian family. But when I told my friends the next day, I wasn’t met with the same shocked faces. For Americans, her meal was normal.

Since then, I’ve seen my friends dine on microwaved pasta (the horrors!), leftovers (dear god!), takeout (say it ain’t so!) and more. I’ve also observed my friends’ surprise when they came to my house and had to endure sit-down dinners with my family.

To an American reader, I’m probably making a big fuss out of nothing. Food is food; who cares if you make a big ritual out of it? But for my family, food plays a central role in our daily lives. Recipes and techniques are passed from generation to generation, from friend to friend.

There’s something to be appreciated in the Italian view of dinner. Family dinners in true Italian style give me a chance to take a break from my work and allow me the opportunity to eat a tasty, healthy meal with family. This tradition also makes me sit down and speak to my family for at least 45 minutes a day, helping us stay connected and caught up on each other’s lives.

Admittedly, there’re definitely some benefits to the American style of dining. For one, without the obligation to cook elaborate meals or eat together, you can eat quickly and get back to your work. Furthermore, working parents might not even have the time or the energy to put something together, and fresh groceries in this country are prohibitively expensive. And to be brutally honest, sometimes it’s nice to be left alone by your family.

But while that’s all true, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As an immigrant, I’ve had the chance to see two different cultures from the inside and, as a result, I’ve grown to appreciate the way we eat in Italy. For Americans reading this, I suggest you try to have family dinners once or twice a week. Cook your own meals from scratch, set the table and eat with everyone. It’s fun, and the effort it takes is well worth it.