It used to be that most nights of the week were spent together around the kitchen table sharing unsequencial talk about the day’s events while enjoying a home cooked meal. But with todays busy schedules and the ease of available prepared foods, more of our kitchen tables are becoming more accustomed to collecting junk mail and car keys then a collecting family for dinner.
Growing up, food has always played an important role in our house and our family spent most nights together around the table passing plates of home cooked goodness as we compared stories of school and work. They didn’t always involve large elaborate meals but always included a time for us to be together. As kids, my sister and I were always excited for dinner time because our parents would always make mealtime exciting with new dishes and tastes and themes for supper. I can remember racing through homework because I could smell of the oozing cheese and delicate tomato sauce wafting up from the kitchen, knowing my mom’s famous ricotta stuffed manicotti was bubbling in the oven, baking to perfection. Or I can vividly remember my sister quickly putting away her cabbage patch dolls and cleaning up her room because she saw the makings of a tacos sitting on the lazy susan, and knew we were having one of our favorite interactive “taco bar” dinners. And on special occasions we knew we were in for a treat when the fondue pot made its way out of the cup board, I can still remember the color doted skewers, mine were always blue, my sister always chose green. The aroma of simmering chicken stock steamed in the center of the table with an assortment of vegetables and meats ready for us to skewer on and cook for ourselves ready for a choice of dipping sauces on our plate.
Our parents were big on expanding our growing taste buds and quickly introduced us to all types of dishes and cuisines explaining them as we tried them. From Hungarian goulash, to Mexican chili rellenos, to Irish corned beef and of course our families favorite anything Italian. I can remember the first time I smelled curry in the air. It was pungent and bold and finished with a spicy sweet aroma as it bubbled in rusty yellow cream sauce swimming with shredded chicken, sautéed mushrooms and bright green peas. Chicken alla King was one of those old school 80’s meals that started off with a can of cream of mushroom soup, but with a few exciting twists, transformed leftover roasted chicken into an exotic international meal. It had a stew-like consistency, and spooned over a plate of steaming rice, it soon became one of my favorite dinners. Back then cooking shows and cooking magazines weren’t readily available, so if they weren’t family tradition passed along, then they typically or came on the back of a can or box from something you bought at the grocery store.
Each night we would sit around the table, enjoying our favorite dinners and laughing about our favorite moments of the day. As we got older and our schedules got busier, we too were found guilty of spending fewer weeknights together around the kitchen table. But there was always Sunday supper to look forward to. Sunday always meant great food, great company and lots of laughs. It was a table tradition that rooted from my parents and their families.
My mother’s side came from a large family of Irish German decent. Sundays and holiday’s meant gathering at my nana’s house where she had a large dining room set up in the basement and a second downstairs kitchen just off that room, where she prepared for larger suppers. We would all crowd along a large table filled with chatty children and laughing families. There was a small bar in the corner where my Grandfather and my uncles would stir up a perfect Manhattan, a martini or a whiskey sour. The earthy buttery smell of oven roasted turkey and the sweet bitter aroma of mashed turnips filled the entire downstairs. My great grandmother, nana, was no more than 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, but when she was in the kitchen she was immense. I was always surprised to see how many dishes she could carry out of that kitchen and fill the table with a bounty of food. It was tradition that my grandfather always carved the turkey. He always brought with him his electric dual blade serrated knife, which delicately sliced each piece of meat with perfection. Platters of roasted meats, boiled vegetables, creamy potatoes, and buttery rolls circulated the table and everyone laughed as we ate.
On my Fathers side, who were southern Italian, Sunday supers and holidays were not just family gatherings, they were food extravaganzas. I am lucky to be part of a family who has both sides deeply rooted in food, but my fathers side made any dinner like it was the last supper. It was my father’s side of the family that ignited my passion for food. Grandma DiLauro gave a livelihood to food that only an Italian Grandmother could do. It was more then just a meal to her; it was a celebration of food and family. Sunday suppers meant getting up early and planning the whole day around suppertime. It would take all day of peeling and chopping and stirring, assuring every room of the house was filled with intoxicating aromas. One step through the front door, one could close their eyes and taste every fresh ingredient she carefully handled that day and could equally sense the love she put into the meal. You could taste the love. Slow cooked sauces emitted delicate scents of san marzano tomatoes, sweet onion and gentle garlic married with delicate meatballs, spicy sausages and braised brochiole. Sunday sauce (yes I said sauce not gravy) just acted as a canvas for all the supporting side dishes swelling the entire house with heavenly aromas of sautéed bitter greens, oven baked stuffed mushrooms, simmering artichokes steaming with garlic and olive oil, boiling pasta, fried eggplant, ripened cheeses, marinated vegetables, the list goes on and on. The entire kitchen was filled with food making its way to the dinning room table used for special Sunday suppers, carefully set by my mother and aunt during the day while my grandmother reigned over the kitchen, and my uncle and father sitting with my grandpa sharing stories and making memories. The whole day became a symphony of food, family and tradition. It was times were we laughed, played and ate. A day that usually ended with mom and dad carrying me and my sister to the car half asleep from the full day of running around and a food-induced coma that left us motionless by the time the adults finished their espressos and cordials.
Sunday suppers on both sides of my family were more than meals; they were magical moments were family got together around the table, to tell stories of their days, and share memories. It was a tradition both my parents were very fond of and a practice that they instilled into both my sister and I growing up. Suppertime did not mean food was on the table, it meant so much more to us. Suppertime brought together carefully bought ingredients, traditional foods, shared recipes and most importantly brought together our family. You know how the saying goes, “a family that eats together stays together”, and even though some of my grandparents and great grandparents have passed on, they are still with me at every meal, and they passed along some of the most treasured food traditions I have ever learned along the years.
Food traditions have changed over the years, food focus has shifted, mealtime has been re-invented, sometimes forgetting to reflect of the importance of primary food which is more than what is just on our plates. It’s our relationships, our lives, our families, our senses, it is what gives meaning to “soul” foods. So as busy as our lives may be today, let us all try to make an effort to bring Sunday Suppers back.