I’ll probably get some heat for saying this … I think family dinners might wind up on the endangered species list before too long. I know it sounds crazy, but think about it. Life’s complicated. We’re under a tremendous amount of pressure. As wives, mothers, and daughters, we struggle to balance work, kids, family obligations and the never-ending to-do list. Family dinners, once a sacred ritual, have been downgraded to a mindless act we perform while attempting to do other things. Who hasn’t made a mad dash to the drive-thru, allowing their kids to inhale dinner in the backseat of the car while shuttling them from one activity to the next? Do you proofread your daughter’s English paper while trying to catch up on Netflix and make dinner at the same time? (I do.) I’m guilty of putting the finishing touches on a proposal for work while attempting to pay attention to the conversation going on at my dinner table and scribble a grocery list. Lately I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic for a time when family dinner was more than just a meal. I grew up in a big Italian family just outside of New York City, and for us, family dinners went beyond a simple opportunity for sustenance. They were an event!
From early on, it was ingrained in each member of my family that Sunday was a special day; perhaps the most important of the week. It was a day to stop and smell the roses, take it down a notch, and celebrate our heritage with all the things that meant the most—church, family, and of course, food. No matter where life took us, no matter what commitments we had, we were expected to be at Grandma’s house on Sunday at two o’clock sharp. And who would be foolish enough to argue with her? (Not me.)
Two generations of my mother’s family resided in an expansive, multi-level home. For weekly dinners, my grandmother played host on the lower level. On more fancy occasions, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, we moved upstairs to the spacious formal dining room on my great-grandmother’s level. The moment you arrived at the inviting mint green house with white trim, you’d already know who was coming for dinner because you could hear them before you got inside. The symphony of laughter, music, and singing greeted you before your hand was on the brass doorknob. Once inside, you needed only to inhale to know you were home. The smell of freshly picked basil mingled with Grandma’s secret spice blend, creating a marriage made in heaven with tender, ripe tomatoes.
My grandmother welcomed everyone immediately upon entry while remaining at her post by the stove, keeping a close eye on the cauldron of gravy bubbling away. (She never, ever called it sauce.) Her Guardian Service cookware with clear glass tops weighed a ton when empty; how she lifted them when full amazes me. The immaculately maintained silver pebbled bottoms of the pots always sparkled inside and out, the heavy glass lids wobbled just a bit from years of love. Those pots were a permanent fixture in her kitchen, giving life to thousands of incredible meals. I don’t know what happened to them; I wish I had them now. Dressed in one of her many soft cotton cobbler’s aprons, my grandmother wrapped you in a tight, herb-scented hug and sent you off to fraternize with the rest of the crowd already assembled at the table. She brought dinner into the home stretch while singing along at the top of her lungs with the songs of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Connie Francis, and Perry Como floating out of the chrome-trimmed transistor radio on the counter.
My grandparents’ everyday dining table was not large enough for the Sunday dinner crowd. Depending on attendance, there could be up to three tables added on to the end. Every available chair, bench, and stool provided the seating, while pristine white tablecloths supplied a blank canvas for the culinary artistry about to be displayed.
When dinner was ready, anyone who wasn’t already seated at the table scrambled for a remaining seat. The table was set with Grandma’s blue Transferware dishes—or for touch of fancy—white china plates decorated with dainty cherry blossoms and trimmed with silver. An abundant breadbasket lined with a cloth napkin would be at the center of the table along with a platter tempting you with cubes of cheese, an assortment of olives, red roasted peppers, and perhaps a bit of prosciutto. The action was just getting started.
The menu varied slightly depending on the season, but mostly you knew what would be served. Pasta, of course, came first. Whether that week’s feature was campy orecchiette, curvaceous fusilli or reliable ziti, we ate them all covered in a blanket of thick red marinara. The pasta was served in giant bowl large enough to double as a baby’s bathtub, requiring two hands to pass it along. In the center of the table, a wide bowl filled to capacity offered assorted meats simmered for hours inside the gravy: meatballs, spareribs, sausage, braciola—and occasionally—chicken. To this day (and this is coming from someone who eats vegetarian more often than not), I still dream about those meatballs. Perfectly seasoned and light as air, I’ve never had another meatball like them, although my husband’s come pretty darn close.
By the time you savored your last bite of pasta, more food arrived at the table. This course always contained something compatible with pasta—perfectly golden fried eggplant (parm or rollatini), tender chicken parm or perhaps a veal dish—all depending on what Ralph the local butcher or Pioneer Supermarket had on special that week. Heavy giant platters circumnavigated the table; we salivated, waiting excitedly for their arrival.
I know what you’re thinking—that’s so much food, there couldn’t possibly be more. Oh, but there was. Salad appeared next, piled high in a primitive wooden bowl with a pair of tongs protruding from the mound of assorted green leaves. Most people eat salad before the main course—not us. Eating it last was “good for digestion,” my grandmother would say. Beautiful and the picture of good health until her final year on this earth. Would you argue with her logic? I thought so.
Finally, people were (mostly) full. As the eating began to slow down, a conga line of assorted aunts in every shape and size circled the table to clear the dishes and replace the sauce-splattered tablecloth with a fresh one. Now it was time for some entertainment before the final act. For the adult men, amusement came in the form of a lively card game enjoyed along with a pipe or cigarette and endless stories about the old country. The women gathered in the kitchen to share the latest neighborhood gossip and prepare for the grand finale. In good weather, the pack of us carb-loaded kids ran around outside in the sprawling backyard playing until our cheeks were as red as the tomatoes growing on the vines around usthe surrounding vines. During inclement weather, we had Scrabble, Monopoly, and the home edition of Family Feud to keep us busy.
By the time the entertainment ended, more food had appeared. A large bowl of fresh, whole fruits took center stage. Tiny, dimpled tangerines shared real estate with juicy, green pears and crisp, scarlet apples. To the side of the fruit sat a most unusual bowl containing an assortment of whole nuts. The low, round bowl resembled a chunk of hallowed out tree trunk, with two holes along the perimeter to hold the nutcracker and pick. That quirky bowl was as much a fixture at our dinners as the guests. I’m absolutely heartbroken that I don’t know what came of it. No one in my family claims to have knowledge of its whereabouts, although in truth, I’m not sure I believe them. In an attempt to quell my longing for the Holy Grail of bowls, I’ve scoured the shelves of Goodwill for years, hoping to find a doppelganger. I still don’t have one.
Then came the big finish. Home-baked traditional sweets shared the stage with an assortment of pastries from an Italian bakery in our neighborhood. Whether you were after my aunt’s buttery spritz cookies, my great-grandmother’s other-worldly fried zeppole, a creamy-dreamy miniature cannoli, or a treasured Italian rainbow cookie, they were just an arm’s length away. My grandmother began serving your choice of Lipton tea, Sanka, or espresso brewed in a special double pot. Sambuca (and perhaps a bit of zesty lemon peel) was optional, but always at the ready should you change your mind.
As the years slipped by, the once-bursting table began to have fewer seats around it. While some empty chairs were the result of marriages and moves, unfortunately, the greater majority was due to loss. I try not to dwell on that part. I’m blessed to have wonderful memories to draw on whenever I need to. Those halcyon days have passed, but they’re not really gone; they come back to life every time I entertain my children with stories about them.
Now that I have my own family and a crazy-full modern life, I can’t imagine hosting a huge dinner like that every single week. I tried (and failed) to do it a few times, leaving me exhausted and frustrated. There was just no way I could replicate that version of dinner. Then I started thinking … maybe I don’t have to. Was it really about the elaborate dinner or the memories made while sitting around the table laughing, joking, and (sometimes) arguing? Did it matter that I wasn’t hosting a huge get-together as long as my little family of four was building great memories? Yes, some of them will be of me burning dinner, ordering pizza after a major culinary misstep, or letting them eat chicken nuggets in the backseat of my car, but good memories still.
Great things began to happen when I cut myself some slack and started paying more attention to making memories instead of making dinner. And I’ve found a way to pay homage to those family patriarchs when I’m in the kitchen. I’ve nailed the art of biscotti, found a great Italian bakery to buy cannolis, and perfected a heavenly meatless tomato sauce. (Sorry, gravy.) When I set Grandma’s silver-trimmed dishes out on my table, I like to think she’s proud of me. As I stir a bubbling pot of sauce made with not home-grown organic tomatoes from Whole Foods and hydroponic basil imported from Brooklyn, I close my eyes, inhale deeply and I’m right back there. My family dinners might not resemble the ones of my childhood, but hopefully the memories they create for my children are just as priceless.