Thinking about the idea of a family dinner table takes me back to my girlhood growing up in Brooklyn, New York during the ‘90s, when my mother would work full-time and yet still find a way to make everyone feel at home. She'd come home, take care of two rambunctious children, and cook a whole meal just as the clock hit six.
It also conjures up memories of going to my aunt’s house for a delicious Christmas meal and opening presents surrounded by my parents and my relatives.
Most ‘90s kids probably share similar memories of going to a beloved relative’s house to celebrate a holiday, a birthday or some other important occasion, since it was definitely the thing to do back then.
One of my favorite parts of gathering with my family around the dinner table is that inevitably, one or both of my parents would start walking down memory lane at some point in time. It was always really fascinating to hear their childhood memories of how their families celebrated the holidays during the ‘50s and ‘60s or what they ate for dinner when they were growing up.
Like my family’s reminiscing, this stroll down the memory lane of history proves that while some things change, other things—like eating with family—stays the same no matter what.
20 Ye Olde Elizabethan Dinner
Amongst many Italian-Americans, it’s common to have every single relative meet up for Sunday dinner. My immediate family never did because they didn’t really care about traditions, but I do remember going to visit my Great-Aunt Nettie once or twice on Sundays and partaking in the stereotypical family dinner.
According to NPR, the roots of the American family dinner go back to the Elizabethan era, and this photo shows a family (stiffly) enjoying a light meal of fruit and bread.
19 When In Rome, Eat As The Romans Do
The Kitchen Project writes that the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans were the ones that created tables that were primarily used for eating. Although the idea of a family dinner really took hold during the Elizabethan period.
In the photo, a group of Romans have gathered around a table to chow down on some delicious food, but instead of sitting in chairs, they used to recline on couches. The highest-ranking person at the table got to sit in the place of honor on top of the highest couch, too.
Let’s bring that trend back; it sounds comfortable!
18 Dining In, 1800s Style
According to the History of Eating, in the early 18th-century, only the men of the family actually sat down to eat a meal. The women and children were forced to eat standing up because they had to go back to their chores around the house ASAP.
All that changed after the rise of industrialization, though. The idea of a traditional family meal rose in popularity during the Victorian era. During family meals, the parents took this time to teach their children good manners and responsibility to help them prepare for adult life.
17 Chow Down With American Colonialists, Y'All
One of the coolest things about the Brooklyn Museum is that they have period rooms where visitors can peer in and see how folks used to live back in the day.
According to the Brooklyn Museum’s official website, the Jan Martense Schenck house is the oldest piece of architecture on display in that collection. It was built in 1676 in one of the six rural towns that eventually became the borough of Brooklyn, and the kitchen was added onto the house sometime in the late 1790s.
16 Vanessa Ives Would Fit Right In Here
This photo looks like it could have been a screen capture from an episode of Showtime’s (now-canceled) series Penny Dreadful, where Vanessa Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray are attending a Christmas dinner at a friend’s house.
What’s even more fascinating than the photo is the fact that the family Christmas dinner has its roots in the Victorian Age. According to the BBC, the idea of a family-oriented holiday meal gained popularity in society and it really took off after Charles Dickens published his novel A Christmas Carol.
15 Fine Dining In 1725
This is another one of my favorites from the Brooklyn Museum’s period room exhibit. Blue is my favorite color, so I always got a big kick out of the fact that the original owner went hog wild with the color in their dining room.
The Brooklyn Museum writes that the house’s original owner was a man named Richard Sanderson. The sea captain decided to move to North Carolina and built a house for himself in 1725 that included a dining hall for entertaining visitors. In order to make sure that his guests didn’t get upset over the cooking odors and to prevent a fire from breaking out, he made sure that his new digs had a pantry that connected to a detached kitchen.
14 British Nobility Loved Being Ornate
The longer I stare at this photo, the more I expect to see Simon Callow waltz in dressed in character as the Duke of Sandringham from STARZ’s hit television series Outlander.
Jokes aside, the Metropolitan Museum of Art says that the Lansdowne House was built in 1761 for the prime minister John Stuart, third Earl of Bute. He sold it to a man named William Petty Fitzmaurice, second Earl of Shelbourne, who made sure that the dining room was decked out in antique statues so guests would be dazzled by his art collection. He also requested that it would be finished with stucco so guests wouldn’t smell the food.
13 Paging Scarlett O'Hara And Rhett Butler!
According to Houmas House, the plantation was originally built for a Sugar Baron named General Hampton, who wanted to create a mansion that would please his wife Mary Cantey Hampton.
Ownership of the beautiful house eventually passed to Caroline Hampton Preston and John Smith Preston in 1848; the couple would go on to entertain guests with their sumptuous feasts of wild turkey, shellfish, and venison. Now that sounds like a meal fit for a gentleman like Ashley Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind!
12 Calling Henry VIII...
In the Middle Ages, the concept of a living room wasn’t a thing yet, so the royals and nobility had what was called a “great hall” where they could entertain guests and chow down with their family (and the servants, too).
Castle And Manor Houses adds that the great hall often had a spot for a fireplace, which was used for warmth and for a little bit of cooking. This fireplace was often decorated with carvings of coat of arms or heraldic mottos written in Latin.
11 Mangia, Famiglia
Looking at this photo reminds me of all the old stories my mom and aunts used to tell me about their experiences growing up in an Italian-American family in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They'd all go eat dinner at a relative’s house every single Sunday.
Most people have the stereotype of big Italian-American families eating pasta and meatballs on Sundays, but as the Italian-American Experience points out, that’s not quite true. Every family back then had their own menu that ran the gamut from different kinds of pasta to salad.
10 Let's Have A Buffet, Downton Abbey Style
I think I was the only person out of my group of friends that WASN’T obsessed with the television show Downton Abbey and didn’t constantly post on social media drooling about the lavish dinner parties or the characters’ love lives.
Many of my friends have said that they’d love to live in that era and host elaborate dinner parties, but according to the Guardian, it was a grueling affair. These events often had 50 plus people in attendance, which is a lot to plan for. Me personally, I’d pass. That's too much noise and too many people for my taste!
9 The Predecessor To 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'
There are tons of posts on the Internet about how the so-called Mediterranean diet is oh-so-healthy, but the fact of the matter is that the food choices for most people in that region often came about because they were hard-working peasants that couldn’t afford to dine like the rich.
The Globe And Mail notes that in 1948 (which is about the time in which the above photo was taken), a study was done on the diet of villagers in Crete. The villagers told the researchers that they had a plant-based diet, but they were constantly hungry and would add more butter or pasta to their dishes if they could afford to do so.
8 No One Has The Time To Decorate Like That Anymore
It’s weird seeing this photo of a family from the 1930s because nowadays, who has the time to set the table in such a fancy-schmancy manner? Most parents in this day and age work and barely have enough time to cook, let alone bust out the nice china.
According to Living History Farm, not only did American families eat with fancy plates every night, radio programs and women’s magazines often featured home economists that taught folks how to stretch their shopping budget so that their families wouldn’t be hungry despite the fact that they were in the midst of the Great Depression.
7 Celebrating The Holidays In Style
For those of you that grew up celebrating Christmas and chowing down on the yummy accompanying dinners or the brunch, lunch, AND dinner for my fellow Italian-Americans out there, there are fond memories of enjoying things like roast ham, pasta or turkey.
The Washington Post points out that while nowadays every family has their own holiday traditional feast, in the beginning, the popular dish was turkey. It wasn’t until the influx of immigrants came over in the 19th-century that American society began to see more ethnic foods eaten for the holidays.
6 FDR Would Feel Right At Home
Food Timeline writes that during the 1940s, even though families gathered around the table to dine with each other, they had to get very crafty with their meals due to the fact that food was being rationed for the soldiers fighting in World War II.
There were tons of cookbooks and government-issued pamphlets that gave advice on how to ration foods, substitute one ingredient for the other, and making things such as “eggless cakes” or “meatless meals.” It’s truly admirable how the cooks of that era were able to keep everyone in their family relatively well-fed during the shortage.
5 Old School Family Dinner
Food Timeline points out that family dinners in the 1960s were a time of culinary change, as lots of cooks tried their hands at showy meals with a French influence. Barbecuing in the backyard—which is now considered a time-honored family tradition, especially in the summer—also became popular, too.
Given this tradition was popular in the ‘60s, it’s pretty surprising that the turkey dinner in the photograph didn’t have some kind of fancy French sides or some sort of unique seasoning on it (from what I can tell).
4 Boarding The RMS Titanic
The gossip and socializing that was shown during some of the first-class scenes on the “Ship of Dreams” in James Cameron’s hit ’97 movie Titanic wasn’t an exaggeration; that was how the rich in the Edwardian era really acted.
Edwardian Promenade notes that the rich during that day and age weren’t content with simple family dinners around a table; they had to throw dinner parties with their friends or those they hoped to cultivate a relationship with. It was less about chilling out with family and close friends, and more about testing their position or climbing the social ladder. No wonder Rose looked so bored half the time she was with her mom's friends in the film!
3 So '80s; Grab Your Leg Warmers Baby
Buttered spaghetti may sound like a weird meal to us modern folks, but for kids growing up in the ‘80s, Food Timeline points out that it was a common staple around the dinner table.
Other popular dishes for families to enjoy included carrot salad (which sounds a bit gross, not even going to lie), beef short ribs, and stuffed zucchini. This makes me devoutly thankful that I was a ‘90s kid that grew up with more normal family meals, such as chicken cutlets and rice.
2 Disco Inferno Time
According to Family Circle, inflation in the 1970s caused many American families to turn to creating meals for dinner out of a box of Hamburger Helper or Stove Top stuffing mix. For dessert, families often enjoyed a delicious slice of carrot cake or crumb cake — both of which are still traditional sweets that my family enjoys during the holidays.
It’s also interesting to note with the publishing of The Moosewood Cookbook, the idea of being a vegetarian really took off in American society and became a pretty popular food trend.
1 Let The Good Times Roll In The 21st-Century
Even in the modern era, people across the globe still gather around the dining room table to celebrate a good meal. For example, All That Is Interesting notes that in China, it’s common for families to get together in order to celebrate the New Year.
Another good example from right here in the United States is that there are still many Italian-Americans in Brooklyn that celebrate Christmas Eve by eating “the Feast of the Seven Fishes” and ending the night with some struffoli. Thankfully for me, my family never ate seafood on Christmas Eve OR day, although we still enjoy a good round of struffoli for dessert on the holidays.
Sources: NPR, The New Inquiry, Dujardin Designs, Wikipedia, BBC, Gables 62, All That Is Interesting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Houmas House, Castles And Manor Houses, Italian-American Experience, The Guardian, The Globe and The Mail, Food Timeline, Pinterest, Tumblr