Exit Thanksgiving with its celebration of family & friendships, headline hogging recipes and endless innovative advice for leftovers. Now begins the run-up to an even more anxiety provoking holiday, a mash up of idyllic gift giving, picture perfect family time and of course, more creative if not traditionally inspired, cooking.
The centrality of gathering around the table at holiday time is of course not limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Add Passover, Easter, Jewish New Year, Kwanza and other religious or secular holidays, and the list mushrooms. And though the feasting is legendary, so is the apprehension of family reunions, taxing travel logistics and the general domestic stress that accompanies command performances.
How do we feel about mandatory family gatherings? We have a love/hate relationship with them, influenced by ones position in the generational line up and how much we truly want to be independent or connected. Or, how good the food will be.
For weeks an under-celebrated ritual has been rolling around in my head: the Sunday Supper. It sounds -- well -- so simple and evocative and seductive. Upon further examination, while it appears to be a contemporary trend (might I say a millennial-foodie-reconnection to lost values) it has very real and deep roots in several American family traditions.
The practice of a Sunday supper originated with families gathering after church for a full meal in England and Europe, countries with deep Christian heritage. I have seen references to the latter day squire who rewarded his serfs on Sunday with a roasted meal; or referred to as Sunday roast with meal might going into the oven before heading to services, and ready when the family returned home.
Ask someone about his or her Sunday supper experience, and there is an immediate transformation of demeanor and I bet a sharp drop in blood pressure, as though one is instantly transported to a magical faraway place. I am jealous and enchanted as the Sunday dinners of my childhood were on the fly and consisted of "LO's," leftovers, the result of growing up in a traditional Jewish household, where both Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch were family meals. So I set about to ask friends and colleagues about their Sunday supper memories.
Diane Dilbert, of Scandinavian/Italian heritage, had Sunday supper in the early afternoon for 22 years until her dad passed; the church going ended in her late teens. Pot roast, ham, turkey, and potatoes were typical fare -- her mom worked full time, cooked nightly and the food was tasty, an uncommon trio. Now she has Sunday supper with her husband's Jewish family, a happy evolution.
David Copper, a chef, is from Queens, NY with deep Southern roots via his North Carolina Grandma. He wistfully recalls an all pork meal every Sunday as a child at 6 PM; "It was homey; with sweet potatoes, mac&cheese, collard greens and fried food." Grandma, mom and her two sisters cooked; David helped though his two sisters were no help at all.
Mark Greico's family ate promptly at 3 PM. It was always Italian food, a big meal, even when it was 90 degrees, out he remembers with a smile. Church? Well, that was only until his confirmation. Grandpa Gustavio Greico commanded the kitchen, setting a good example for Mark who was to become a chef of equal passion.
Another chef, Mark Russell, with Scotch/Welsh/Canadian/Upper Michigan roots, described the sequence as "Roast in, go to church, back to eat. Most often, top round or rump roast." Once the family moved, the ritual was replaced with Sunday breakfast at a local restaurant with the nuclear family.
For Nicole Fillipi and Amanda D'Uglio, grandmothers ruled the kitchen -- making fresh pasta and sauce from scratch, naturally. For Amanda, the open door policy with friends, cousins and close family influenced a life in hospitality. Shaynee Scott, from Hawaii, recalls the influences of her Portuguese/Hawaiian/Filipino lineage. "Sunday supper always happened at Grandpa and Grandma's house, the heart of the family. We would help clean the yard, house or do some sort of activity or we would all end up at the beach. There was always a pot of something on the stove and bags of fresh picked avocados, mountain apples, mangos, and papaya ready for everyone to take home.
"Occasional Ukulele, dancing, and melodic tunes streamed out of my grandma's piano. Then, there were stories of the old days and laughter.... Tons of it. Those were the days!!"
David Mills recalls another southern Sunday tradition from Nashville. It included his sisters and mom along with community families, who went to the local restaurant, Swett's, after church. Today, he and his wife create their new tradition, proudly cooking dinner at their home in the Bronx.
Unlike many families, the Palumbo family Sunday supper tradition is decades old with no end in sight. It's always a "red sauce day". Present at the table is immediate family, as there are no less than 30 first cousins on his dad's side -- too many for a non-holiday. Growing up, Vincent recalls the 2 PM signal; dad would whistle which meant RUN to the table! It was a household with robust daily meals including fresh pasta, fresh chicken, meat and veggies. Sunday supper might include a lasagna, pasta with calamari or lobster ("If dad was in a good mood.") No electronic or external social interruptions at the table -- it was pure family time. Exceptions were occasionally made for the Sunday soccer match. Vincent, his parents and sister and their kids still follow the tradition.
"I was blessed with a wonderful family and as a result experienced a privileged childhood. As a typical 1st generation American, lots of my memories centered around the kitchen table, enjoying a great meal and listening to my father tell a story about his childhood in Italy. Not the sad kind but a story that about three quarters through we would all be holding our stomachs from laughing that came with the anticipated ending. Those memories were special.
"Now when I walk into my parent's house, I seem to relive those memories, through the eyes of the next generation, my 16-year old nephew interacting with my mom (usually complimenting her on a dish she made) or his sister asking if she can have the last piece of lobster on the table. It could be my 3-year old daughter asking for a second helping of pasta or my son raiding my mom's refrigerator looking for olives. Some of these actually happened today. And again, as if we stepped back in time, my dad will tell some of those same old stories, which somehow never get old and to this day, still will lead us to start laughing before the story is finished."
Lindsay Vogelstein's grandparents, with roots in Eastern Europe, Austria and Russia, came over every Sunday to Whitestone, Queens. In a delightful ethnic adaptation, Grandma and mom cooked brisket, kosher roast chicken, barley and had the best chocolate babka from a local bakery. Mom was an only child, and the 3 generations were very close, with sleepovers and Sunday shopping expeditions that continued Lindsay left for college. Dad worked on Sundays and dinner was good reason to head home. Lindsay glowed recounting these sacred Sundays.
Best of all was the note from Jeanine Arango: "Sunday Supper, in my home usually meant gravy, which contained more meat products than my non-Italian friends ate all week! My mom was always the first one up to start the process. First up was the sauce; she'd use the best-canned tomatoes she could buy (and never left one speck of tomato in any of the cans). She would strain them in a hand-cranked mill.
"Once the sauce was made and simmering (the aroma was usually what woke me) my mom would start frying the homemade meatballs (she usually made her own chop meat and breadcrumbs), then the sausage and spareribs, followed by Braciole, and sometimes Goudina (pig skin). The final little secret was in the same pan she would fry finely chopped celery, and carrot and add that to the sauce for sweetness. My siblings and I always grabbing a few freshly fried meatballs, and of course my mom would usually say, 'Only one, or we won't have enough.' That was NEVER an issue, we always had enough!
"The sauce would usually simmer on very low while we ran to Church. We were quick to leave as soon as mass ended (but never before the priest) because my mom would be worried that her sauce would burn! We usually ate dinner around 4; it's very typical to eat Sunday dinner early, especially in the winter. I have so many wonderful memories about preparing family meals, some of my most memorable would have to be watching my maternal grandmother prepare holiday dinners in her Carol Gardens Brownstone, with all my girl cousins. Most of us would watch her with our hair in rags (which created perfect banana curls, another one of my grandmother's talents) and matching Christmas pajamas.
"That was such a wonderful time, how simple life was. In the wake of the Paris tragedy it was nice to forget these crazy times and instead reminisce about such happy times."
Today, Sunday supper continues as a special time for families but it is a far less common, eroded by scheduling demands, detachment from church going rituals, eclipsed by sport commitments (TV or participatory) and other modern day pulls. In Georgia, The HandsOn Network hosted a Sunday supper in 2011; "Inspired by the legacy of Dr. King, America's Sunday Supper invites people from diverse backgrounds to come together to share a meal, discuss issues that affect their community and highlight the power each one of us has to make a difference." The following year, The Creative Action Organization followed suite with a creative pot luck twist: "Over 60 individual participants brought delicious pies ranging from savory Jamaican Jerk Hand Pies to scrumptious Chocolate Pecan pie. Conversation leaders from community farms and other food-based organizations led informal discussion groups in substantive conversations about what food insecurities exist in our community, how to combat those issues, and what next steps could be taken to bridge the gap of food insecurity."
On the other end of the spectrum, New York social legend Nan Kempner was known for her curated Sunday suppers for an eclectic crowd of artists, Wall Street titans, show biz folk and the posh set. "Wear whatever you're already in," was her dress edict. The 'Spaghetti Dinner' with its infamous bacon sticks, cold meatloaf, salad and cheese was her version of a relaxed Sunday gathering to celebrate community. Definitely NOT your mom's dinner crowd, but it was a most coveted invitation.
Sunday supper is creeping back into fashion, whether by activist communities or individuals hungry for the simplicity of home cooked meals and family face time. There is a revived social as well as culinary component, connecting the supper to southern heritage and regional recipes such as Gumbo and Creole style dishes from New Orleans in a cooking class in Berkley, CA. Food blogs promote the meal as "a special occasion to look forward to and can make the end of the weekend seem brighter."
And the Emily Post Institute offers tips for a "successful Sunday Supper" for bringing people together without the formality of a Saturday night dinner and the early finish of a school night gathering. There is the Sunday Supper Movement website, which offers and on on-line food community with recipes and events, and yes, brand sponsorships.
Sunday supper encourages families to cook and sit down to eat together. That alone merits our commendation. It presents an opportunity for young people to hone social and table skills, how appropriate and necessary. It encourages conversation and banishes ubiquitous electronic devices to the sidelines, how positively refreshing! And, unlike Thanksgiving, Passover or Christmas, the next day is a workday -- so the meal won't go on forever and you don't have to plan a timely escape.
If you have a Sunday supper tradition, please share it with me, along with any recipes and menus. I would love to hear more about this simple yet rich custom.
This piece was originally published in Our Town.