Articles,  Radio Hour

Eight Plates


by Mackenzie Jackson

Mackenzie’s essay appears in episode 38 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.

Whoever said breakfast is the most important meal of the day hasn’t met my family; breakfast provided the nutrition needed to last through the day, but dinner provided the connection that continues to last throughout my life.

Breakfast with the Jackson family isn’t where you’d get stimulating conversation. With six kids getting ready for school, all off in our own worlds among drooping eyelids and stifled yawns, our parents had a hard time getting us to sit at the table all at once. Breakfast by default was just a pitstop. A preface. A pre-game, if you will. And dinner was the main event.

I don’t know if there was a discussion that we were to eat dinner together every night, but it certainly was an expectation. I can’t recall a time any of us were allowed to skip eating dinner together. In hindsight, I’m glad that unspoken rule was initiated.

Dinner would be called by either my mom or dad, sometimes both if we were too engrossed in our homework or reading to hear them the first time, and the rest of us kids—myself, three sisters, and two older brothers—streamed in from various places, all descending on the food we’d been smelling and salivating over the past hour. Eight plates would be held in careful hands, taking turns at the stove serving ourselves portions, and then we’d all sit and wait for everyone to be ready to say grace, eat, and talk.

Conversation ballooned at once, overlapping and colliding as we shared about our day (“So guess what happened in math class”), bartered food (“I’ll trade you my sweet potato for some broccoli”), and told some joke pulled from a tv show while we all ate at various speed and in various order. It didn’t matter what we talked about (though, if you ask me, we talked about football or basketball a little bit too much) as long as we spent the time together. It became difficult over the years with six kids in different sports and after-school activities. Our schedules may fluctuate, but ending our days eating together was a constant staple.

Dinner was a noisy affair; it comes with the territory when half the family is identical quadruplets and they’re fighting to get any bit of individual attention they can. One voice turns into four, and that stereo surround sound—literally as myself and my sisters were positioned at the four corners of the dinner table with a brother in between us and parents positioned at both ends—tended to drown out conversations. It wasn’t intentional. Even though us four girls were in the same grade, we all experienced the day in different ways and wanted to share the ups and downs and funny anecdotes. We all wanted to talk, we all wanted to share, we all wanted to be heard between the clattering of silverware and the hums of pleasure as tender cuts of steak all but melted in our mouths.

Mom always tried to argue to eat dinner together with the TV off, but she lost that battle fast with a myriad of begs and pleas over the years. “Mom! It’s a new episode! I can’t miss it!” “But Mom, we’ll miss LOST.” “Mom, please? At least let us watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! You like those shows! And they’re educational!” (I’ll forever go down in Jackson Family history for guessing the Wheel of Fortune Food & Drink category answer of Key Lime Pie with Whipped Toppings after one glance at a blank clueboard.) She’d shake her head, sometimes roll her eyes, but give in. We talked in between commercial breaks, mostly filling her in on why a polar bear was found on a tropical island and what a number sequence had anything to do with the show, but we still talked.

Nowadays, I wish we kept the tv off and our faces pointed forward more often.

Before I knew it, my oldest brother graduated high school and moved onto college. It was weird at first not having him around; the dinner table topics still tended to shift towards sports—a topic still I don’t care for—but there was one voice missing, the authoritative expert of all things basketball and football. If anyone needed to know the stat of a particular player, he could tell you with a readied ease that one could say was due to memorization, but I always felt the information had been etched onto his bones.

Eight plates went to seven.

Roughly three years later, my other brother graduated and went to college as well. My righthand man, literally as he took his place at the table to my right, was always within reach when I wanted some of his food when he wasn’t looking. My seatmate had moved on. He took the talk of soccer and robotics with him. Two other topics I didn’t care much about, though now, 18 years later, am wishing I paid more attention to. Not necessarily what he was talking about, but more in how he used his quiet voice to solidify his stance and understanding of the world.

Seven plates went to six.

With my older brothers now off on their own and missing from the dinner table, I could take up as much space as I wanted, my elbows up in the air when I cut my steak. Noses weren’t at risk of being broken when reaching to pass the ketchup. My hair spent less time in my macaroni in an effort to lean forward and catch the trailing end of a fleeting conversation that didn’t reach my end of the table.

Joke punchlines landed fresh the first time now that I could hear the jokes being told.

Dad’s eyes crinkled at the dramatics that we, four teenage girls, could muster over heaping plates of spaghetti because it was imperative to know who ate the last few pieces of my portion of strawberries.

Mom shook her head at the voting system implemented by her daughters to add input for dinner over whether we should have pizza or chicken.

But with my brothers gone I didn’t get extra bacon when we ate breakfast for dinner. I don’t know what’s going on in the sports world. I have to learn about new video games or tech advancements of my own volition. There’s an empty space to my right.

Six plates went to two.

The table got smaller and my portions increased with fewer people to share with, but the taste wasn’t quite the same. Recipes were followed to the letter but still missing something I couldn’t put my finger on. I call Mom for help. “Can I call you back? Your dad and I just sat down to dinner.” What else can I do but say okay and wait? I don’t want to intrude on their dinner. It must be quiet without all eight of us sitting together now that we’ve all grown and gone our separate ways. I wonder if they miss the noise.

A long year comes to a close and we find ourselves back around the table, taking our usual places—Mom and Dad at the ends, four girls at the corners, and two boys in the middle—older, wiser, but not necessarily more mature as my brother raises protest over soft holiday music when I take a french fry off his plate. Mom still makes a face if I put sugar on my white rice, my oldest brother lets out his trademark hissing laugh when recalling some childhood story that still gets on my nerves, my sisters and I still gang up on and out-vote my brothers, Dad still takes a lot of pride whenever we rant and rave over his grilled salmon and asparagus, and my cheeks still hurt as I soak it all in.

Original artwork by Alex Knighten

About the Author

Mackenzie Jackson is a 30-year-old amateur chef, baker, and writer who lives in Hampton Rhodes with her sisters. When she is not playing video games, going to the movies, listening to 90s boybands, or teaching herself calligraphy, she can be found using her sisters as guinea pigs for her kitchen creations, sharing the results of said creations in her family’s group text, or calling her parents for help preparing a dish.

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