Growing up in the Eighties, I ate dinner at a table with my family – my parents and three sisters – every night.
It’s just the way it was. Night after night after night. We were quizzed by my dad on capital cities, times tables and made to list all the countries in the European Union (only twelve of them back then).
Dinner in front of the telly was a no-no. My dad would look hurt and puzzled at the idea. Didn’t we want to learn our times tables and our capital cities and discuss geopolitics?
We could, every now and again, petition to be allowed to eat in front of the TV. It had to be something really special that we really, really wanted to watch and, no, we can’t record it, Dad, because we haven’t got any spare VHS tapes.
There was no pausing the telly back then, no way to catch up with something you missed. You watched it or you didn’t.
If we were grudgingly granted permission, there was a cacophony of clattering cutlery as we gathered up our dinners and carried them carefully to the playroom, trying not to slop lamb stew gravy on the floor. Then we sat with the plates balanced on our knees - we didn’t have a coffee table – scoffing and watching… no-one asking us the date of the Battle of Trafalgar or to name all the members of the shadow cabinet…
It was heaven.
I never lost that feeling that dinner in front of the television being a huge treat. How could it not be the most exciting thing that there is, to eat something delicious and watch something amusing all at the same time!
There is a constant rumble of disapproval in the background of society about eating in front of the telly. You are supposed to sit down and eat as a family, at the table, sharing stories about your day.
But, these days, I only have dinner with my husband – and I talk to him all day long!
Along with greater ease of digital communication, it is said that we actually talk to each other less. Well, not me and my husband. Sometimes my husband will send me a text and I am texting back when he rings me about something else. Sometimes he will ring me as he’s walking home and is still talking to me on the phone as he opens the front door. When it gets to dinner time, there is often nothing left to say.
And it’s not just us. We all, in one way or another, spend our days talking and communicating with each other, crafting tricky emails, diplomatic texts, hilarious tweets and supportive Instagram comments, let alone ringing siblings, chatting to the barista and actual conversations with colleagues.
By the evening don’t we all deserve to just flop in front of the TV with a tasty dinner and take a break from just give-give-giving all day long?
Television is also not the anti-social activity it once was. Compared with poking about on your phone, watching television - even on your own - these days feels like an entirely wholesome and positive activity. I embrace it. And I have perfected the art of the TV dinner. No general knowledge required.
First of all: set the scene. This isn’t something to be furtive about – celebrate the fact that it’s dinner time and you’re going to watch TV too and whoop, whoop! Light some candles, use the good knives and forks. Have napkins.
Second: the right food. It is important – don’t laugh – that it isn’t “loud”. It is genuinely hard enough to hear the television while chewing without having to navigate noisy food at the same time. So nothing crunchy – no nachos or crackling or toast. Also nothing that requires a lot of elbow work, so no large steaks or entire roast dinners.
Third: the right vessel for the food. Unless you’ve got a great coffee table at the right height, or a special TV-dinner trestle table, or one of those trays-with-beanbag, (in which case I salute you), your dinner needs to be able to go into a bowl, if you don’t want it in your lap or on the floor.
In fact, isn’t our passion for chowing down in front of the telly the driving force behind the crazy popularity of “bowl food”?
Fourth: the right programme. And by that, I mean nothing with subtitles. Beauty and the Baker may be a masterpiece but unless you’re fluent in Israeli, look down at your food for a sec and you might miss something crucial. So watch an episode of Togetherness first and save the foreign stuff for when dinner’s finished.
My top four TV dinners
Jamie Oliver’s smoked haddock chowder from Jamie’s 30-minute meals (leave out the noisy matzoh crackers)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Lamb Tagine from It’s All Good
Thai Pork Patties from James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking
Fried Aubergine and Pork from Tom Parker Bowles’ Let’s Eat Meat.
TOM PARKER BOWLES' FRIED AUBERGINE WITH PORK
- Serves 2
- 4 tbsp groundnut or sunflower oil
- 2 aubergines, cut into 2cm/¾-inch chunks
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 125g/4½oz minced pork
- Big pinch of sugar
- Big pinch of salt
- 4 tbsp oyster sauce
- 5 spring onions, sliced diagonally into 2cm/¾-inch pieces
- Steamed sticky rice, to serve
- Heat 3 tbsp oil in a wok or frying pan, add the aubergines and cook over a high heat for around 5–6 minutes, until they are soft and starting to turn golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Reduce the heat to medium, add a little more oil if need be, then add the garlic. When it starts to turn golden, add the pork and stir-fry until cooked. Add the sugar, salt and oyster sauce, then whack up the heat. Add the aubergines and spring onions and stir-fry for 1–2 minutes. Serve hot, with sticky rice.
Recipe taken from Tom Parker Bowles’ Let’s Eat Meat.
Photo: Jenny Zarins