I will wear a mask in public and keep my social distance until the Centers for Disease Control tell me it’s safe to hand out hugs and kisses. But, as my children are my witnesses, I am taking back the dining room table.

Since mid-March, the solid, chestnut-stained pine table that expands to fit 14 in a pinch and sports water stains, heat-warped patches, and nicks and scratches from its well-used past, has sat leafless, covered with remnants of COVID-19 projects. Stacks of assigned reading that should have been scattered around a dorm room in New York City. An old sewing machine used to crank out hundreds of masks. Piles of clothes I thought I’d finally have time to mend. Packing tape and cardboard boxes needed to send gifts to loved ones whose birthdays, graduations and weddings we are missing.

We take our daytime meals at our respective home office desks and our evening ones on our laps in the living room, remembering more about the series we’ve binged on than the food eaten. In our 22 years of parenting, we’d only ever before allowed this kind of meal taking on the occasional Friday movie night. Our nightly touchstone tabletop dinner was central to our parenting style. And whether it had to be taken before a night meeting or after a late chorus rehearsal, it happened at least five nights a week. I really miss it.

This is actually the garden table, as the dining room table is off-limits to the photographer because of the pandemic. But you get our drift: Coming together to eat at the table is important for a myriad of reasons. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Scads of research shows that purposefully sharing a meal at the table, without electronic distraction, is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all seated around it. Studies link regular family dinners to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Mindful eating – the practice of having in-the-moment awareness of the food you put into your body and observing the emotions and signals your body sends about taste, satisfaction, and fullness – helps to keep obesity and disordered eating at bay. It is also much more easily practiced at the table than in front of the TV.

Dinner conversation, say developmental psychologists, can be a more potent vocabulary-booster for children and parents than reading. I recently learned the 20-something alternative meanings for the terms low-key, GOAT and salty, for example. My daughter low-key (sort of) likes cream cheese on her bagel. My son believes reverse-searing a steak is the GOAT (the best). And my husband doesn’t need to be so salty (angry) about the kids’ failing to put dishes into the dishwasher.

And the family stories told around the kitchen table, research shows, helps build resilience in all who listen to them. In his 2011 book “The Table Comes First,” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik describes a conversation he had with acclaimed British chef Fergus Henderson. “I don’t understand how a young couple can begin life by buying a sofa or a television,” the chef said. “Don’t they know the table comes first?”

Gopnik says yes, the table “precedes everything in remaining the one plausible hearth of family life, the raft to ride down the river of our existence even in the hardest times.”

As coronavirus conditions persist, the economy declines and racial tensions explode, put down the remote and come back to the table. There is so much more to digest than the food you serve there.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Peppered Mushrooms, Steak and Spinach with Brandy Cream Sauce
If you need to spur on dinner conversation in the direction of sustainable eating habits, try talking about how the mushrooms in this dish stretch the amount of meat on the plate, how you can easily substitute onions for the shallots and kale for the spinach if those are the ingredients you have on hand, and how serving crusty bread alongside a brandy sauce always satisfies.
Serves 4

1 (12-ounce) beef steak
Kosher salt
4 large portobello or shiitake mushrooms, wiped clean
1-2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/3 cup brandy
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf (or Italian) parsley leaves
1 ½ pounds washed spinach leaves
Juice of half a lemon

Season both sides of the steak with salt and grill it to desired temperature. Set aside.

Season the mushrooms with salt and half of the black pepper. Place 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. Place the mushrooms, gills up, in the pan. Cook until the flesh touching the pan are well browned and the mushrooms begin to soften, 5-6 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate, stack them and cover them with tin foil. This will allow the residual heat to cook the mushrooms all the way through.

Add the shallots to the pan and cook them until they begin to soften, 3-4 minutes. Carefully add the brandy, increase the heat to high, and cook until half of the brandy has evaporated. Turn off the heat, stir in the Worcestershire sauce, heavy cream, parsley and remaining black pepper.

In a separate pan with a cover, add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, spinach, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon water. Cover and place pan over high heat and cook until the spinach is wilted, 3-4 minutes. Uncover and stir the spinach so that it is coated in the lemon butter sauce. Season with salt.

Spread the spinach over a serving plate. Slice the cooked steak and mushrooms and arrange them on the plate with the spinach. Serve immediately with the brandy cream sauce.


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