We are thrilled to announce the publication of a new book, The Warrior’s Table: Recipes That Cultivate Connection Through War, Change, and Uncertainty. The book was written as a collaboration between The Family Dinner Project’s co-founder and Executive Director, Dr. Anne Fishel, and the “Cast Iron Crew” of the Military Special Operations Family Collaborative.
Our friend KaLea Lehman led MSOFC and the Cast Iron Crew’s efforts to create a book modeled on The Family Dinner Project’s Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook, but specially geared towards the unique needs of Special Operations families. We sat down with KaLea to talk about the project.
Tell us about the idea for The Warrior’s Table. What made you decide special ops families needed their own book?
The Military Special Operations Family Collaborative (MSOFC) is a nonprofit public health initiative created to help meet the needs of military families in a chronic stress environment. We found 8 habits and common coping mechanisms people use to manage stress, but those are designed to get you through a single stressful event. In Special Ops, you stay. It’s constant. They’re rarely home more than six weeks at a time, so the coping mechanisms become: A family who doesn’t celebrate. Doesn’t have routine. No family vacations. No meaningful conversation. Avoidance of shared mealtimes. Lack of recognition of invisible wounds. Pessimism about military service and tradition. Typically, a Special Ops family will have at least 3-5 of these pitfalls. But they tend to say, “It’s just how we live.”
You don’t see it happening, but the way it impacts family connection and how you devalue yourself over time is chilling. So when we focus on dinner, we’re putting back routine and celebration. We thought, “We can do that! And we can do it through the lens of Special Ops families, to show them that they can adapt to fundamental stressors.” We realized they really need unique skills, so they can walk out of the career a happy person with a whole family.
Through the process of writing the book and getting community feedback, we developed Healthy Checkpoints — the things you need to develop to keep the common pitfalls out of your life. And dinner is the shared platform. It’s changed so much of how we work with families, and that all came from the book.
What’s the significance of the “Cast Iron Crew” name? And how did the book take shape?
Our family dinner team was telling stories about how we all think of our military life experience and how it has shaped us as a mom, spouse, friend, etc. Most of us are known for being direct or possibly salty at times, and a few members of our team made the connection to how you cook with and care for cast iron. It is best cleaned with salt, and then you take the time to oil it and care for it, and season it over time. That resonated with our team, and we became the Cast Iron Crew. Anne (Dr. Fishel) validated the concept of the book, and since we’re not clinicians, it was so helpful to have her walking through the process with us.
We met for two years, talking about our experiences. In the end, there are 200 recipes and about 100 pages of shared experiences in the book, from before marriage into post retirement. We embed historical battles and military customs, and we collected 70 personal stories that we thread through, as well as common experiences like Family Jump Day and unexpected deployments. We also named the recipes with language from Special Ops life, so you can flip to the glossary and become more fluent with the terms, and feel more connected to others with the same experience.
What are some of the traditions and rituals you focus on developing through shared meals?
There’s a whole chapter on making things matter at home, and one on how to deal with just being antsy and bored. Also, many guys are uncomfortable with the idea of having a retirement party, so we did a whole chapter on the importance of that ritual, and how to do it.
One of the few shared rituals left in our community is honoring the fallen or those who die in service. So we have a chapter on that, and Anne’s feedback completely changed how we thought about the importance our community placed on things. We reflected that we weren’t very thoughtful about the significance of the food and rituals around this shared experience. Her feedback on the “why” behind what we eat and why we gather really spurred us to change the book and create greater focus on developing that significance, to really make all things matter.
What is one key takeaway you learned through the process of creating this book for Special Ops families?
I think one of the tensions in our community is that people who have been around for a while are known for being salty. But we wanted to come across differently. People become wise and hardened quickly in the Special Ops community, and the unfiltered honesty can be too much. We need to promote healthy habits for our families without leaning into the trauma, and I think the Healthy Checkpoints are a way to do that.
Order your copy of The Warrior’s Table, or enjoy these three recipes from the book at your next family dinner: City Slickers Cozy Chowder, Trident Tri-Tip with Coronado Sauteed Mushrooms, and Stone Bay Brownies!