When you sit down to dinner with family or friends, what do you usually talk about? Food writer Jenny Rosenstrach is all-knowing when it comes to dinnertime, and she has one idea that always works. Here, she reveals a funny piece of family lore she’s passing down to the next generation…
A few years ago, as our family was sitting down to meatballs, it occurred to me that my two daughters, then 8 and 10 years old, had never heard one of my family’s most legendary stories, the kind of yarn has been told so many times (mostly by their grandfather) that we have forgotten where the truth begins and ends.
“Girls?” I asked as I grated some fresh parm over their plates, “Have I ever told you The Dog Story?”
I noticed the focus adjust in their eyeballs like the lens on a camera. I had their undivided attention, which, I should’ve known by then, is what always what happens when you start a conversation with the words “Did I ever tell you the story…?”
I told them The Dog Story:
One Saturday morning when I was in ninth grade, my father woke me up and told me a client was going to be stopping by the house that day. A very important client, he added. “Be on your best behavior, please.”
It wasn’t often that my dad, who was in market research, had clients come over, so even though I was a teenager, I obliged. I picked up my room and made sure my CB down jacket was hung in the closet instead of slung over the banister in the foyer.
When the doorbell rang that evening, the very important client walked in… along with his dog. And not just any dog, mind you. A ginormous wild-eyed beast, which I immediately identified as a cross between a Lab and something way more intimidating, like a Doberman or a Rottweiler. This was bad news on many accounts. For starters, we had a cat named Boo who was terrified of dogs. Boo shot up the stairs faster than I had ever seen her run, and the dog took off after her.
“Well, we’re off to an energetic start!” my father said, clearly a little uncomfortable, before offering his client a soda and escorting him into the living room for the meeting. The client laughed and started in on small talk about the neighborhood.
My brother, sister and I, meanwhile, were freaking. I tried to mobilize them to rescue Boo, but my sister, who also had a paralyzing fear of dogs, didn’t want any part of it and escaped to a different part of the house. I could hear the cat tearing back and forth upstairs, and I have to admit, I was a little scared, too. But we didn’t want to interrupt the Very Important Client, so, in a controlled panic, my brother and I climbed the stairs.
Boo had flattened herself underneath a low dresser in my brother’s room, and was safe for now. I could not, however, say the same thing for my sister’s brand new black leather boots. One of them, chewed and shiny with slobber, was hanging out of the dog’s mouth as he sprinted from room to room. The good news was that he did not seem at all interested in my brother or me. He thrashed her boot around, as though he was breaking the neck of a squirrel, before taking off down the stairs again, drooling and panting as he went.
We followed, but slowed down when we got to the living room, where The Client was flipping through bound financial reports, as though it were completely normal for a vicious animal to be terrorizing the house.
“What is up with this guy?” my brother whispered.
“Well, it is a Saturday meeting,” I rationalized. “He probably thought it was fine to bring his dog?”
The charade – all of us on edge, pretending everything was fine — went on for another torturous half hour until we heard a crash in the kitchen. Everyone, including Dad and The Client, sprinted in the direction of the clamor. The dog had knocked down a plate of homemade cookies and was gulping up as many as he could. My father finally turned to his client, gingerly.
“Do you maybe have a leash you can put on your dog?” He asked.
The client looked at him in confusion.
“That’s not my dog,” he said.
When I tell the story, people always take a second before it sinks in that the dog was a stray who happened to wander in off the street at the exact same time that my father’s client showed up at our doorstep. My father delivers the best rendition of the story, but even so, I definitely won family dinner that night.
I’ve written about family dinner for six years now, and while our table will always be a place to recharge and reassure, I’ve found I also appreciate mealtimes for a different perk: It feels like the most natural place to tell stories. They don’t necessarily have to be legendary – though I do find that every family has at least one Dog Story.
If your kids are like mine, they love hearing about where they came from and who we are as a family. Particularly when it includes a glimpse of their parents as kids, or behaving in a way that is far from perfect. Beyond just having my daughters’ attention, beyond having something to talk about besides the meatballs, the tales help us build the family narrative, the never-ending, multilayered yarn they’ve been hearing their whole lives, and, hopefully help them figure out where they belong in it.
Next time you sit down to family dinner, try it. Ask “Did I ever tell you the story about…” and see where it takes you.
Food writer Jenny Rosenstrach is the founder of the blog Dinner: A Love Story. She wrote a book with the same name, which has a prized spot on our bookshelf. Her other two books are Dinner: The Playbook and How to Celebrate Everything, which comes out this month.
P.S. A romantic trip gone wrong, and how to get your kids to talk at dinner.
(Illustration by Kristen Solecki for Cup of Jo.)