Foodie Sunday. Why Sunday Dinner?
This first “Foodie Sunday” post is dedicated to my mother Barbara Lowenstern Schreibman, who still whispers in my ear and tells me what to do. After all of these years mom, I’m truly grateful .....And to you Marina, Mistress of this lovely blog, thank you for the opportunity to write in a way that continues to expand my soul and challenges me to grow.
Why Sunday Dinner?
One of the most wonderful things to re-emerge in the last few years is what I consider to be a long overdue return to the family dinner table. When I was growing up we had dinner at home every night, my mother insisted upon it. She worked full time with my father, building the wonderful business that sustained us all for so many years and dinner with candlelight every night and wine and a full accompaniment of gorgeous tableware was her sanity. She was the master of preparation, quite often having the evenings meal ready before she left for work and when I got home from school she’d call me and I’d put the final touches on it, pop everything into the oven and set the table to her very precise instructions. This was how I learned to cook and she was an excellent teacher.
Sometimes there’d be a red wine, sometimes a white and always candles! The amount of plates would vary and so would the settings. She always used linen napkins which she kept freshly washed and pressed, her secret was a brick that she kept on the laundry table and when she took her napkins out of the dryer she would immediately fold them and put them under the brick to press them smooth. What I remember the most was the civility and the conversations and the time just being with my parents who were mostly so busy that dinnertime was the only time that we all could reconnect.
My mother was a fabulous cook though and Sundays were when she pulled out all of the stops. Her kitchen was a symphony of scents; curry, garlic and onions, simmering sauces, roses for the table, melting chocolate. We always had dessert because my father required it in the same way that most of us require air , but on Sundays she made it herself . It was always something wonderfully old fashioned, like a chocolate cake filled with whipped cream and ganache or an espresso coffee mousse with ladyfingers or a layered trifle or Floating Island pudding served in the gorgeous cut crystal bowl that I now own. Out came the Baccarat crystal , the antique Haviland porcelain and her grandmothers monogrammed sterling silver.
The sterling well and trees were polished for the evening’s leg of lamb or roast beef and the gold service plates that she loved were set out on the table with the salt cellars and the monogrammed silver napkin rings that she’d used as a child. Later on she got some lucite ones that she loved that had little holes in them for water and flowers. I can remember my youngest niece playing with them and building towers out of the little blocks. That was the best thing about my mother. As formal as she was, I never saw her get upset whenever anything got broken. “What do you think this stuff is for anyhow? ” she’d say. “They rebuild entire civilizations out of fragments of old china so it can’t be too terribly fragile! ”
My mother had blatant disdain for anyone who saved their good things for company only, a sentiment that I completely share. She also felt as I do that even if you didn’t own gorgeous things that this wasn’t the point. Truthfully, who deserves your attention more, certainly not the strangers in your lives. Children that grow up sitting down to eat at a beautifully set table (even if it’s set with paper and plastic!) learn to interact with adults in a much different fashion then kids who eat their evening meal at the drive through. When I asked my son of his memories from his grandmothers table he sighed and said “ The beautiful tureen that was always on the table , the candles and the smells from her kitchen, the fact that my place at her table was always my place, it never changed. “ For him, it was the continuity of his experience that made it so valuable, the fact that he had a place in the world that never changed.
When she died several years ago, it left a hole in the heart of my family that has taken me all of this time to relearn how to fill. My son was hit hard by her absence, running away first to Honduras and then to California in an effort to recover his life which dramatically changed the day that she died. The two of them being Leos understood each other in a way that I was never privileged to and she was his rock. My sister and I throw parties together and they’re wonderful and when we’re all together in California we eat and laugh and really enjoy each other’s company, but in my gut I’ve known that there was still something missing.
The other night, I finally began to understand. Alex has moved home and I decided to cook a wonderful dinner especially for him and his friends. I spent the day trying to decided what to cook and suddenly my mothers voice rang through my head with absolute clarity, telling me to make a veal stew. Now you have to understand, I haven’t made a veal stew in years as I’m generally opposed to it. However I found myself at the Whole Foods in search of free range veal and I brought it home and began the process of flouring it and braising the whole thing slowly in marsala, onions and cream just like she used to. When Alex came home that night, the kitchen was filled with the smells of his childhood; simmering stew, risotto with peas , roasting potatoes and fruity red wines. The effect was instantaneous and astonishing. He stopped in the doorway , closed his eyes and took a deep and satisfied breath. “Mom, the house smells amazing, I love it that I’m home and you’re cooking such a meal”. Now, most of you know that I’m always cooking something, but this was entirely different and I knew it. I asked him if he recognized the smell and he smiled. At that moment, I understood what had been missing for the last three years. You see, in a effort to reclaim what was left of the pieces of my heart, I too ran away and in an attempt to reinvent myself , I forgot entirely how important it is to hold tightly to the beautiful memories , tastes and scents that can warm us in those scary cold moments when we are sure that we’re orphaned and all alone.
Tonight , I’m having Sunday dinner for the first time in many years. Jim and Alex will be there, his lovely girlfriend and several of his best friends. I’ll light the candles, pour the wine and I’m even planning to make one of her desserts which I’ll serve in her gorgeous bowl . The table will be set with her dishes and sterling and there will be roses in the soup tureen. There will be a curried soup , cocktails and an appetizer or two. I’m planning to make one of her favorite dishes, a chicken breast baked with bacon, fried beef and a marsala wine and mushroom sauce. We’ll have mashed potatoes and I will take the skins off, just as she did and I will save the beaters for my son.
I will be wearing Shalimar and her pearls.
All of those sights, scents and beloved flavors connect the dots of our souls in a way that nothing else can ever do. Thinking beings that we are, we sometimes just get in our own way because we forget about the simplest things. We run for cover when life gets too raw, forgetting that there are others to care for, who need the reassurance of the stories and memories that we hold. So please for me and in honor of my mother or yours, wherever you are tonight sit down, light a candle, pour some wine and take a moment to gather around the table with someone who’s important to you. Don’t let another day go by without letting the ones you love know just what they mean to you and if you’re ever in Cleveland on a Sunday night please give me a shout. There’s always a place for you at my table.
All my love,