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Dinner Conversation: Ruth and Jamie Pennebaker

What do an author and a professor discuss over dinner?


DINNER WITH THE TWO OF US? IT DIDN’T START OUT WELL. We’d been dating a few months, and I think my mother wanted me to impress him with my cooking skills. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any. Following Mother’s handwritten directions, I broiled two steaks in the oven, where they caught on fire. He ended up finishing the job. That was some 45 years ago, and he’s been cooking ever since. It works better that way. He cooks, I clean up and we usually don’t set fires. We’ve shared 45 years of dinners together — one of the few rituals in our haphazard, semi-chaotic daily lives. Looking back on those dinners, I can see the broad outlines of our lives. In our early, grad student years, we ate cheaply and austerely. Homemade split pea soup for days at a time. Frozen dinners. Paper plates. Nutrition? That was for old people.

The years passed. We became gainfully employed and we weren’t quite as broke. We ate steak more often and fresh fruits and vegetables. We used nicer paper plates. Chinet, a friend told us, was the Cadillac of paper products. He really knew what he was talking about; Chinet gave us style, we felt.

Then we had children — a girl, then four years later, a boy. If there’s anything that slows you down in the high-style department, it’s kids. There was always a major oatmeal spill on somebody’s high chair and squishy, milk-soaked Cheerios on the floor. We learned a few tricks: Feed the kids yogurt the same color as their outfits. Don’t make the dinner table a battlefield. Dinner tables were better for minor skirmishes.

Early on with children, you feed them dinner so they’ll survive. As they get older, though, you aspire to more. You are civilizing them, you are teaching them polite conversation, you are modeling good table manners. You win a few, you lose a lot.

“I hate lentil soup,” our daughter announced one night, after I’d once again offered up one of the few dishes I could cook (and an excellent source of protein, according to the nutrition authorities). It turned out her brother hated lentil soup, too. So did — oh, the betrayal! — their father. The Great Lentil Soup Rebellion of 1992 pretty much wiped me out in the cooking department. Who needed the constant criticism? Not me. I sulked a little, then went back on KP duty. My husband, with his unshakeable confidence and thick hide, fired up the skillet and barbecue pit. We ate lots of red meat, medium-rare.

But I don’t want to be misleading. Through-out our years together, for richer and poorer, pre-kids, with kids, post-kids, we have always eaten out, too. Give us any excuse — We’re tired! We don’t have anything in the refrigerator! We’ve already eaten at home three nights in a row! — and we were out the front door, beating a well-trod path for Tex-Mex or barbecue or sushi. From an early age, our kids were adept at asking for the check, even if they never paid it. These days, with our kids grown and in new cities, my husband and I go to the grocery store for leisurely visits. Our shopping carts, I recently noticed, resemble a salad buffet: plump, bright fruits and vegetables, whole grains, wild-caught fish, grass-fed sources of meat that ranged freely and died happy.

But 45 years of dinner conversations? How do you capsulize that? I look back and it’s a swirl, a swamp, a flood, an occasional drought.

“Our groceries have gotten so boring and wholesome,” I semi-apologized to a checkout clerk recently. “You know, we used to eat junk food and drink all the time!” She looked young, deeply bored and a little hungover. She’ll learn, I thought. She’ll learn. I know, I know. I’m supposed to be highlighting what we talk about at dinner. But 45 years of dinner conversations? How do you capsulize that? I look back and it’s a swirl, a swarm, a flood, an occasional drought. We talk about our days — our work, our conversations with others. We talk about books we’re reading and movies we want to see and trips we’re planning. We talk about our grown children and our first grandchild, who’s turning one in August. We talk about politics — we’ve always talked about politics — till we get indigestion.

Along the way, my husband became an expert on pronouns and linguistic analysis. And yes, we talk about that sometimes, since we both find it fascinating. (‘How do you talk to him, given his line of inquiry?’ I’m asked sometimes. My stock answer: ‘No longer use pronouns around husband.’)

More than anything, our dinners together are a chance for us to slow down and look at each other and listen. They are a time when we don’t answer the phone or check emails or texts or let the outside world intrude. Sometimes, we meander aimlessly, other times we interrupt, sometimes we disagree. Empires and skyscrapers have fallen, children have grown up, shadows have lengthened, but we still show up, hoping to surprise each other, expecting to have fun.

Ruth Pennebaker is an author, public radio commentator and blogger. “Pucker Up!” a wry, irreverent and poignant book on aging, is her latest book. Jamie Pennebaker is a professor in the Psychology Department at UT. His most recent books are “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” and “Opening Up by Writing it Down.”

Read more from the Nightlife Issue | August 2016