All happy families may be alike in some ways, but one thing's for sure—they each have unique and special food traditions. Christine Chitnis, photographer and author of the new book, Patterns of India: A Journey Through Colors, Textiles, and the Vibrancy of Rajasthan, explores travel, food, and the new traditions she and her family have created together, accompanied by beautiful images from her book.
Our habits around food are often informed by the environments in which we were raised: cherished family recipes; ingredients we love especially; a designated seat at the table for each family member. For the most part, our upbringing also shapes our understanding of mealtime. Especially in the food community, we often talk of the joy that comes from sharing a family meal, but it’s easy to forget that in some homes there is little comfort to be found in the act of gathering.
My childhood was steady and safe, with homemade dinners enjoyed around the kitchen table together every night. As a child I could depend on a green salad with from-scratch dressing served at every meal, my mom’s famed banana bread baked weekly and devoured immediately, and my dad regaling us nightly with funny stories from his childhood. My brothers and I set the table, my mom cooked, and my dad did the dishes. That was our daily routine and I’d always imagined that when I had my own family, we’d follow suit.
But for my husband, growing up in a family where tensions and tempers ran high and money ran low, the kitchen table was not a place of comfort, routine or joy. His childhood avoidance of the dinner table is deeply ingrained.
Vijay’s parents immigrated from India to England, where his twin siblings were born, and then to Canada, where he was born. Shunning their arranged marriages, his Hindu father and Catholic mother married against their families’ wishes and were essentially cast out to brave a new life in a new country on their own. Vijay remembers a childhood punctuated by upheaval and loneliness. He combated those stresses by maintaining a perpetual state of motion, eating on the go, playing every sport he encountered, his body never still unless asleep.
When I met Vijay in my early twenties, his chaotic approach to meals seemed charming, if not a bit impractical. I visited his apartment shortly after we started dating, a stunning loft in downtown Philadelphia, and was shocked to find it completely bare, save for a mattress on the floor and a few clothes in his closet. There were no plates or utensils, no food in the fridge, and no table at which to eat. He made a point of never eating at home. Every single meal was eaten on the go, or at restaurants with friends; such was his aversion to home dining.
Once we were married and began having children, our different approaches to mealtime became a source of tension. I felt that the nightly ritual of family dinner was important, but my husband continued his habit of eating (and feeding our kids) on the go, be it at the park, while pushing them in the stroller, or many times, with an impromptu picnic on the steps of our patio. It drove me wild. I’d have the table set for dinner, with the food laid out, and he would come, grab a plate, and head for the door. There were many nights I ate alone and in tears, wondering why we couldn’t manage something as simple as a family dinner.
Sometimes, it takes a dramatic shift in perspective to come to a place of understanding. This is exactly what happened during our first family trip to India with our sons, then ages two and four. As we spent time visiting with friends, old and new, I noticed that our shared meals were mostly informal. The vibrant street markets of Rajasthan encourage this informality—vendors selling savory snacks, such as samosas, papdi chaat (crunchy, spicy fried wafers topped with yogurt, chutney, potato, and chickpeas), and panipuri (hollow fried crisps stuffed with savory fillings and sauces) welcome a steady stream of customers.
Sweetshops, with their enticing aromas wafting through the market, offer ladoo, kaju barfi, and deep-fried jalebi to satisfy sugar cravings, market-goers picking them up by the dozens to take home, and snacking on some as they walk around. And no trip to market is complete without a cup of chai, drunk standing up in front of the stall; the black tea, steeped with a mixture of spices, milk, and sugar, is an integral part of the daily rhythm of life in India.
We quickly fell into this rhythm, savoring endless cups of chai while sitting on the stoop of our friend’s house, watching our kids play nearby. We munched on snacks as we strolled through the market, and ate lunches as meandering affairs that wove from the kitchen to the table, ending in the backyard. Meals served to bring us together, with or without a literal dining table.
When we returned home, I started to live by the idea that food is a gathering force, no matter the location. My husband is famous with our friends for turning up at the playground with a container of biryani to share, or arriving at our son's soccer game with a full breakfast spread for all the parents. I saw and understood for myself that a kitchen table isn't the only place where memories and traditions are joyfully made.
We’ve now been married for 12 years, and many of the scars my husband retained from his childhood have begun to heal as he experiences the joy of our steady family life. While he still prefers what we jokingly refer to as a “moveable feast,” he has started to come around to the idea of an occasional seated meal. In the end, we aren’t a family that gathers with any regularity around the kitchen table for dinner—we’ve created our own narrative around family dining. It’s not rooted in tradition, but rather in flexibility and joy. And it seems to me those are things we could all use a little more of at this moment.