Family dinner for 17: How many meatloaves did Mom make?

The family dinner was a daily ritual for the Walsh family's 15 kids, with "Mommy Barbara" Walsh at the kitchen sink helm, soaking up "the together thing."

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Barbara and Bill Walsh were adherents of the daily family dinner ritual – even if it meant feeding their 15 kids in shifts. They now go to the homes of their children for dinner instead of cooking for everyone. This story is part of the cover story project on family dinners in the June 25 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

There are plenty of Walsh family dinner stories. That's because there are plenty of Walsh kids – 15 of them, born between 1949 and 1968 to Barbara, a former runway model, and Bill, a World War II veteran and insurance company executive, who married in 1948.

But for Barbara, the stories meld into an overall sense of having spent a great deal of her life at the kitchen sink. A family friend once observed that she and her husband were affectionately known as "Mommy Barbara" and "Mr. Walsh." And that's pretty much how it worked – she oversaw the food and he, a former naval officer, made sure things didn't get out of hand.

PHOTO GALLERY: The all-American family dinner

Barbara's kitchen, in a huge, 10-bedroom house on Philadelphia's Main Line, was big enough to hold a giant picnic table, with room for extra chairs on the ends. There was always at least one high chair and often a bassinet. The six left-handed children sat along one side. Though Barbara says she likes to think that she instilled formal table manners in her brood, their number precluded a single conversation. Plus, the group was usually in some kind of spilled-milk minicrisis.

But the older siblings helped little ones, and everyone learned over time. As their mother puts it, "I think when they went out they knew how to behave."

During the heavy sports years, there were two seatings in the big kitchen – early for the babies, who couldn't wait, and late for the athletes who had after-school practice.

"I'd have to sort of pace the food," Barbara says. Though she recalls being tired at night, she loved family life. "We were all in the kitchen together, and it was nice having everyone there." Even with 15 mouths to feed, she says, the only time she felt overwhelmed was the day she brought her first baby home.

Meals weren't fancy. Milk came from giant metal milk drums. Hot dogs with SpaghettiOs – the far and away favorite dinner – was served weekly. There was meatloaf – always an extra in the freezer to send to another family "in case someone died" – and a weekly eight boxes of cookies. "When they were gone, they were gone," says Barbara.

On Sundays, the children's friends were invited for a barbecue. And from their earliest days, Barbara and Bill went out to dinner by themselves once a week. "Half the time we could barely afford it," she recalls, but she strongly advocates it still with her own children now that they are parents. "The two of you were there first," she reminds them.

PHOTO GALLERY: The all-American family dinner

The Walsh family dinners have long outgrown the dinner hour. They number at least 50 now, and require at least five tables. They'll gather over the July 4 weekend for Bill's 90th birthday for what promises to be four days and 15 families' worth of songs, skits, video presentations, and athletic events. One night, they have 45 tickets to the Phillies. Their matriarch will be back at her kitchen sink – in a manner of speaking – soaking up what she most loves in life: "It's the together thing."

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