When you think of a family meal you probably reminisce about gathering around your living room table, with lots of dishes filled high with your mother’s homemade mashed potatoes and casserole: the very typical image of a Thanksgiving meal you’ve seen in the movies perhaps, where the kids push and shove to get to the last Pillsbury crescent and pot-bellied dad secretly scrapes his serving of green beans to the dog. When working at the restaurant however, my first experience of what is called “family meal” wasn’t as warm and fuzzy.
Having finished dicing octopus for a squid salad, I looked up at the clock at twenty past four. A burly voice calls out to warn, “Family meal in ten!” Meaning all the staff would gather to dine (guzzle down) by four thirty. The last time I ate dinner at four thirty, I was at the Olive Garden with my Nana, in a sea of endless breadsticks and wrinkly faces. I lined up behind the rest of the hungry staff, whose stomach grumbles were louder than the immersion blender (very loud), and I grabbed a plate. I assumed that because it was staff meal, nothing fancy would ensue, and it would probably be similar to the quick and easy slop served in a common cafeteria. The delicious aromas that meandered to the back of line pleasantly surprised me, and as I arrived at the table, large hotel pans were filled high with linguini and clams and banana cream pudding. I looked around as if there was some mistake… was I allowed to eat this? With a little pep in my step, singing “Food, Glorious Food” in my head, I scooped up a hearty mound of sustenance. All seemed well, until I needed to find a place to sit. I noticed that the crew had gathered around one large table, at which all seats had been taken. And then there were the few waitresses who whispered to themselves at the long communal table, but I didn’t get a strong feeling of community from them. My eyes met with some of the chefs, and they noticed I felt extremely uncomfortable but chuckled at my awkward attempt. It felt like those moments in junior high, when you’re the new kid and you have no idea where to sit, and that grim thought of sitting in the bathroom stall à la “Mean Girls” crosses your mind.
So, I pulled up a chair between the host and the dish washer. Other than the scrapes of forks against plates, there was silence. I cleared my throat and exclaimed, “How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice!” I chuckled to myself, and looked down at my linguini in embarrassment. All of a sudden, the entire staff began to laugh in an uproar. I felt a sense of relief come over me. As every morsel was raked from people’s plates, we all stood up to clock back in. I turned around and one of the chefs put his fist out towards me. Naturally, I was confused. Then, in amazement, we pounded fists with an added flair-filled release in which we made that sort of jazz hand move.
It was magical.
At the next family meal, I was invited to sit at the big-kid table with the rest of the chefs, and I can honestly say it was one of coolest moments of my life thus far, which is perhaps very un-cool to admit. As the days passed, family meals at the restaurant began to feel like a downsized version of those iconic meals with your actual family. There was laughing, the occasional garlic bread tossing across the table, utensil battles and joke telling. Now, whenever I hear, “family meal, ready in ten,” I know I can comfortably scoot into the booth and squeeze next the rest of the staff, like a part of the family.