Family Food

This time of year is given over to family gatherings, and for most people, it’s never just one gathering: it’s a multitude of visits, trips, meals, events, and celebrations.


We had our own Christmas celebration on Christmas eve, just the five of us, with our now traditional homemade pizza dinner as the culinary centerpiece. Gifts were opened, toys were played with, then we hit the 10:30 Christmas Eve service–which we walked to (church is only 3 or 4 blocks away, and even at that time of night, the temperature was still around 40 degrees). Home before midnight, and then straight to bed to wait for Santa…


Sunday was quiet and peaceful around here. A quiet, laid back day, enjoying the new gifts, relaxing after the buildup of the previous week.


Yesterday (Monday), we headed down to Rochester to see my grandfather. Since we’d announced the plan, the kids were all excited to see him, and it sounded like he was excited to see us, too.


He gave us some pictures, two of which were from Christmases long past–1979 and 80, if I recall–and just looking at the snapshots of my parents, sister and I brought back a flood of memories of those rambunctious gatherings.


My grandmother was, probably rightly, proud of the fact that she could sleep as many as 20 people, I think it was. And I suppose that when you’re a parent to five kids, being able to accommodate that many souls in your house for an overnight would be an important consideration. But to me, meals and present opening were impressive the events to behold. My grandfather would traditionally preside over breakfast, brewing the coffee, pouring juice, offering hot water for tea and hot cocoa, and slinging the pancakes–usually of some form other than the traditional circle. He was part grandfather and part short-order cook on those mornings, shaping the pancakes for all of us kids typically in our initials, so thank God he didn’t need to write our names in Farsi or Chinese, because who knows how that would have worked out. Meanwhile, my grandmother would sit at the head end of the table, working on a crossword puzzle, eating her remarkably healthy breakfast, and just taking in the mob as they awoke and made their way to the dining room. For this meal, she was a very willing spectator. My grandfather was the ringmaster.


It always seemed that as soon as breakfast was consumed, work would begin to prep lunch–usually soup for a group this large, and much appreciated at that, as many of us would go outside for sledding or cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. I can recall some limited debate on what was going into the soup and what would be served with it–grandpa had something to go with the meal that he’d bought at the store that grandma didn’t know about, causing her to just chuckle at him and wave her hand at him, not dismissively, but just to reinforce the point perhaps that this information could have been shared earlier…But somehow I’d always imagined that this was how lunches always were with them: grandpa had a plan and probably something he’d stashed away for that particular lunch that she didn’t know about. By the time these huge gatherings were happening, I imagine that this was a weekend routine for the better part of 40 years–the same song, same verse, but different words.


And at some point after lunch, the effort would begin for dinner.


Dinner, though, was the meal that called on all hands for effort, or at least by those capable of contributing. There would be a clutch of people working, talking, and laughing in the kitchen beginning in the late afternoon, and it always seemed as though the toil was not so much work as it was a social occasion.


Somehow, everyone would be accommodated at one of a few tables in the living room and dining room. Dishes might be passed between the tables, and conversation would never be limited to just those at your table. But the food was never secondary–it may have shared top billing to the togetherness and conversation, but it was also a vital part of the gathering.


It’s interesting to me now so many years later that I’m finding the memory of the meals as the centerpiece of the gatherings. It is a big part of how I approach holidays–the meal is the thing to me. It is what brings everyone together. The presents are important, but ultimately the opening is forgotten some short time later, but the hour or even two spent around the table talking over the food of the holiday is what drives the family time.


Christmas night, I reprised the Christmas meal I first prepared for Jenni and I so many years ago back when we lived in the apartment in St. Paul. Nearly two decades ago, without kids or very much money at all, I took a stab at producing an elegant meal on a shoestring budget, and somehow, it still resonates with me today. There was a sentimentality to making that dinner on Sunday night, even though it was just simple stuff: cornish game hens, Stove Top, rice pilaf, and creamed peas. I don’t know if other people tie as many memories to specific meals as I do, but preparing certain meals recalls those specific events.


Tonight was the Nielsen gathering at our house, and while it’s completely irrelevant to everyone there that I actually spent a few days considering options for the meal, it was no happenstance that I chose lasagna–there’s no specific emotional undertone, but it just seemed to fit the event, given everyone who would be gathered.


I love cooking those meals, sitting back and being like my grandfather at those breakfasts: the ringmaster who provided the focal point for everyone else to gather around. The fun part is just soaking in the enthusiasm that everyone brings to the meal.


So even though there’s tradition and sentiment to meals that needs to be observed, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for trying something new…More on that this coming weekend.


See you tomorrow.