Like many families, ours has a particular food culture that defines it. Food anchors us and connects us to one another. Mealtimes are an opportunity to have important conversations (about what we’re eating and about life), to laugh and to simply enjoy one another.

Our daughter is home for a visit after her first year of college. We’ve resumed our daily habit of eating together. Although she gave generally good marks to her college’s food service this last year, she is grateful to be home and enjoying her favorite meals. We spend a great deal of time discussing food, planning future meals and dining out at favorite spots.

All of this brings to mind our visit last fall for the “Family Weekend” at her college, Willamette University. Food was a central part of the three-day experience, which was wonderful, joyous, interesting – and at times, puzzling. Her father and I (re)connected with our daughter on a new footing. She had changed a great deal in eight weeks; we were meeting her as an equal who had been living rather independently from us.

She showed us her new community and we met her friends. It was wonderful to learn about her experiences and begin to see the life she is creating for herself.

Truthfully, it was a bit like standing on the deck of a rolling ship – in the best possible of ways – when the safe harbor and shore are behind you, and the horizon ahead is infinite and limitless. You are no longer the captain: that role has now been given over to your young adult, to the next generation. You can only try to keep your footing and remain relevant in some way. In our case, relevancy was working the galley: food provisioning.

The afternoon we arrived, we celebrated our reunion by driving through the gorgeous Willamette Valley to enjoy an afternoon snack at the Willamette Pie Company. We saved room for a patio dinner with our daughter and her roommate at Adam’s Rib in Salem. Another dinner was reserved for a new favorite, La Margarita. Each of these places evokes a place from our own community of Ventura, but of course, each is different. And this was an important lesson for parents and child: we often seek the familiar, even when we set out on a new journey.

Willamette Pie Company. Credit: R. Hayden-Smith.
Willamette Pie Company. Credit: R. Hayden-Smith.

After dinner on the second night, our daughter came back to our hotel room to enjoy a slice of blackout chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. She studied and watched football with her dad. Dirty clothes were magically laundered and folded. We sent her back to the campus well fed and with a bag of groceries.

Sunday meals have always been an important tradition in our family. My husband cooks. Nothing fancy, but substantial meals and a big production. There are even special musical soundtracks he cooks to: Thelonious Monk or Frank Sinatra. We’ve always prepared extra food for our daughter’s friends, who invariably show up to eat. While my husband cooks, our family congregates in the kitchen: I write, and my daughter studies. We talk to one another. And it is perhaps on Sundays that we missed our daughter most acutely this year, when the house felt the quietest and when we soldiered on with much smaller meals.

As we concluded this family weekend, our daughter made a request: that her dad make Sunday dinner for she and a group of friends in the dorm kitchen. We visited the kitchen to survey the resources. No pots, no pans, an electric stove. Utilitarian: much like the kitchens we had access to when we were in college, when our Sunday dinner tradition began as young adults. On the menu: chili and cornbread for ten or twelve first-year college students, who were missing home and their family’s food ways.

The kitchen was off the rec room, with a TV and a ping-pong table, big comfy couches and a wonderful feel. That afternoon, on a cool, overcast Oregon day, while our daughter lounged on a couch in a gorgeous brick building that is nearly a century old, doing her homework and playing ping-pong with friends, her dad and I cooked chili and cornbread. The focus was less on the quality of the food, but rather, on the opportunity to revisit a Sunday tradition with our daughter’s “new family” (her college friends), in the place she now calls home.

As they ate, we cleaned the kitchen and slipped away, to walk down a leaf-strewn street and ponder the miracles of family, food and growing up.

Have a great week.