Shortly before my daughter, Abra, was born, I stumbled upon an article in the The New York Times that discussed the idea of the modern-day Sabbath. How, it asked, could we slow down our lives and connect with ourselves and each other in a deeper way? Standing on the precipice of becoming a family of three, I found myself longing for sturdy traditions that I could build a family on and immediately my mind gravitated to food, which has always served as a sort of compass in my life. I reflected on the “Sabbaths” of my youth, when my mother would lovingly prepare a special meal at home. Sunday was the only day of the week that she didn’t go to her job as a cake decorator at The Fantastic Cake Box and, desperate for a rest, the activity of the seventh day usually orbited around home and hearth. The dinners were generally seasonal: Pot roast would cozy up alongside a rustic apple crisp, steaming up the kitchen windows on a cold winter’s day. Cool slices of banana cream pie, my dad’s favorite, would be dished up in the warm summer months. These were not fancy meals served on our best, chipped china; rather, they were an everyday centerpiece to our small family being in one place, at one time, one day of the week.
Despite the modest affairs that defined the Sunday dinners of my youth, I had strong visions of how I would carry out this special weekly meal with my own expanding family. Complicated, scratch meals would be served on the delicate china that my mother-in-law gifted me. Bathed in candlelight, we would sit around the stately cherry dining room table that was my grandparents’, toasting to the clink of the crystal goblets that were passed down from my parents. I imagined that this elaborate event would happen every Sunday, without fail.
Reality soon smacked me in the face. As an infant Abra easily joined us at the family table: snug in her “bouncy seat” placed in the middle of the table, she often slept through long, leisurely meals, leading me to believe that this would be easy. But as a solid food diet replaced a liquid one, meal time quickly became marked by chaos, a chorus of banging spoons against a canvas of smeared food. Further complicating matters, Abra would often go to bed at 6 pm, pushing back dinnertime to what could easily qualify as a late lunch. During the week I would often eat half of my dinner while Abra ate hers and the other half when my husband, Maikael, got home from work, leaving me to feel disjointed. I swiftly abandoned the idea of my elaborate dinners, and as the months slipped by family dinners fell by the wayside altogether (too messy! too complicated!). But their absence gnawed at me, and I realized that what I really longed for was not a fancy affair but simple togetherness. It dawned on me that it was not in spite of but because of our busy life that the effort was important, and the only answer was to work with, rather than against, our particular reality.
A year later I am faced again with the task of creating a weekly family dinner, this time taking into consideration the constraints of our unique family. We all have them in varying configurations, an often-complicated calculus of work schedules, activities, and sheer time to dedicate to making a proper meal. For many of us, our busy lives don’t permit us to come together seven nights of the week to enjoy a home-cooked meal. A friend of mine whose husband works as a nurse is often pressed into the service of late-night dinners, making nightly family meals with a hungry toddler and tired infant next to impossible. But what if we aimed for just one night of the week, a sacred time and space in which we gathered around the table to share conversation and good food? This seems like something worth striving for.
I will use this space to explore what happens when our family sits down to dinner once a week to dine in accordance with the seasons, with the goal of slowing down and creating connections over food. Sometimes these dinners will involve other families and sometimes we’ll fly solo. Sometimes I will attempt a new dish and other times I’ll stick to tried-and-true recipes, but I will consistently strive to focus on food that is fresh, seasonal and, when possible, local. I suspect that some dinners will be filled with laughter, and many will dissolve into a fit of my daughter’s tears. My hope is that, in whatever unique and unpredictable way the meals unfold over the course of this “experiment,” a space will open up in our family where we honor our particular rhythm and rejoice in the simple act of being together. Maybe we’ll even dust off that china from time to time.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas writes regularly for Edible Santa Fe and at her site elizabethgrantthomas.com. She can be found here every other Tuesday as she chronicles her family’s journey “back to the table.”