Whenever an American holiday approaches there is a lot of work in my family’s kitchen. Things like desserts are started the day before and then a few family members spend all day in the kitchen while everyone else watches tv. The food is always great, but especially for holidays, we all sit in the formal dining room with big chairs and a long table. Everyone seems so far away. Then after hours of cooking and preparing, everyone finishes eating in about a half an hour and gets up from the table. It seems like once everyone has eaten their plateful, there is no reason to stick around. Hours of work for 30 minutes of eating.
For Chinese holidays with my husband’s family in Shandong, there is still a lot of prep work. Dumplings, for instance are a day-long endeavor, but take very little time to actually cook. Stir-frying doesn’t take very long either, especially with everyone helping with chopping and peeling. Then everyone, it seems like almost 20 people, sits at a tiny table that one would think fits 4. With toasting of tea, beer, and baijiu, the meals last for hours. When the food looks like it is about to run out, more is made or found. I recall a couple of 11am lunches that didn’t finish until after 6pm.
Now in America, husband and I invite people over for Chinese meals all the time. We’ll have 10 or more people over and fit everyone around a table that by American standards should only seat 6. Sometimes, we’ll just stir-fry up a few dishes and serve some fresh pickled veggies, or, even easier, make hot-pot. It takes less than an hour to make everything and everyone is cozy. Without having defined portions on a dinner plate, the Chinese style meal allows everyone to graze for hours. Conversation seems to flow better and everyone is more literally sharing the meal.
Every family is different, mine seems to get restless once they are full. The only way to get them to stay at the table longer is to eat Chinese-style. Surprisingly, no one has complained about being cramped or about reaching for food.