More Home CookingA Writer Returns to the Kitchen
PerennialCopyright © 2004 Laurie Colwin
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060955317
Introduction: The Family Dinner in Real Life
Let us sit down and talk straight about the family dinner, that supposed artifact of years gone by. It is said that these days (in contrast to those days, when families gathered together for at least their evening meal), the family meal has vanished, and what we now are left with is The Snack. No one sits down with anyone anymore. We are a nation, we are told, of people who eat pizza or yogurt on the run, and standing up.
Most people who intend to have a family meal are too busy to think about the cultural relevance of this act. The fact is that modern life has deprived us of life's one great luxury: time. In the old days things were different. Mom was home, Dad at work, the kids in school. When the old Dodge pulled into the driveway (or as the old Dodge pulled away from the railroad station with Dad inside and Mom driving and the kids in the back) dinner was ready, and then, it is imagined, a cheerful meal was had by all.
Now, of course, everyone works. The morning does not feature a communal breakfast with bacon and eggs and oatmeal (no one eats bacon and eggs anymore, in any case) and the morning is a scramble to get Mom and Dad into their work clothes, children into their snowsuits, lunch boxes packed, and the house pulled together. It is no wonder we look back nostalgically on those supposed heavenly days of yore.
It is my opinion that Norman Rockwell and his ilk have done more to make already anxious people feel guilty than anyone else. I myself am reduced to worm size when contemplating his famous illustration of the farm family Thanksgiving table, with the beaming grandparents and the children with their hair combed. How happy they all look! And how politely and still the children sit! Why can't I get my child to sit like that? And when her cousins come to a family dinner, why do they all wander so much? And when I gaze at Norman Rockwell's enchanting Thanksgiving picture, why do I suspect that the grandfather drinks more than he should, that the mother and father have had a few bitter words in the kitchen about the in-laws, or the mom has told the dad how much she resents doing all the cooking when all he has done is watch the football game and never so much as poke his head into the kitchen to ask if she needed help, and that the aunt is taking either antidepressants or mood elevators?
The fact is, family is variable, but our stereotypical image of it is not. And so as we sit to our family tables, with our children wandering and our table full of family we are on dicey terms with, we are still hag-ridden by the image of the happy, harmonious, white, two-parent family. We would all be a lot happier if we could relax a little and have some fun. We must sweep away these old, ingrained images and lighten up: The world is full of possibilities.
Let us imagine a family table. Some of the people sitting at it are blood relatives and some are family by choice. After all, what do we mean by family? We mean people who are deeply and lovingly connected to one another (for better and worse), people we can count on. In a pinch I can call my sister. I can also call on one of my close old pals who is related to me by bonds, and bonds can be every bit as strong as blood, just as blood can be much less consequential than a bond.
Here at the table is a single mother with an adopted child from El Salvador. Also her beau, the divorced father of two. Also their mutual friends, a female couple who have successfully raised together the son of one of the women. (These families are hell on grammar.) The single mother, who was raised an Orthodox Jew, has a bunch of nieces and nephews who are the products of a Jewish mother and a Moslem father from Pakistan, and the children grew up in Mexico and naturally speak Spanish as well as Urdu.
Then mix in some family by choice: the oldest friend, her husband and daughter, a friend of the oldest friend (and godmother to the oldest friend's daughter), and the oldest friends friend's beau, who is from Shanghai, plus a stray English visitor who spent five minutes viewing this mob in a kind of dazed state and then put her feet up with everyone else.
This is the description of a festive meal: Thanksgiving, or Passover, or Christmas. But everyday life is something else again—our nuclear families flying off in different directions, faced with daily challenges of all sorts and not a moment to rest, re-create, and dine.
These are hard times for people who like to eat, who like to cook, and who hate to do both but need to. Our present economic system leaves us pressed, drained, exhausted, and yet ... and yet we still need sustenance, and contact. We need time to defuse, to contemplate. Just as in sleep our brains relax and give us dreams, so at some time in the day we need to disconnect, reconnect, and look around us.
Life these days does not leave much room for this sort of thing. Some people have never been taught to cook, or taught to eat. When I was a little girl, children sat at the table with their parents when they were old enough to take part in what you might call "table life." You had to be able to manage your knife and fork. You needed to practice your table manners. You needed to be able to take part in dinner-table conversation (which in those days was considered an art form), and, naturally, you needed to be able to appreciate what you were eating.
But that was then, and this is now. Even people who work at home (like me) are hard-pressed. To get the house cleaned up, and arrange the meals and make sure the recorder gets practiced and homework done, to supervise the millions of things for which children need supervision, and pay the bills and register to vote, and to have a few seconds for friendship or to read a book and then to shop and cook and plan menus! Wouldn't it be easier if we threw up our hands, ate junk food, and ordered out?
It would probably be easier, but it would be far less nice. These days family life (or private life) is a challenge, and we must all fight for it. We must turn off the television and the telephone, hunker down in front of our hearths, and leave our briefcases at the office, if for only one night. We must march into the kitchen, en famille or with a friend, and find some easy, heartwarming things to make from scratch, and even if it is but once a week, we must gather at the table, alone or with friends or with lots of friends or with one friend, and eat a meal together. We know that without food we would die. Without fellowship life is not worth living.
For every overworked professional woman of the nineties there was a depressed, bored, nonworking housewife of the fifties. We cannot go back in time. Instead, we must reinvent life for ourselves.
The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift.
My goal has been to find recipes that are easy, fast, and delicious that can be served to a family of three or for a large feast. I know that young children will wander away from the table, and that family life is never smooth, and that life itself is full, not only of charm and warmth and comfort but of sorrow and tears. But whether we are happy or sad, we must be fed. Both happy and sad people can be cheered up by a nice meal. This book was written for the sustainers and those who will be sustained. I hope both will eat happily and well from it.
New York City, 1992
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. and line the bottom of a buttered 8-inch round tin (2 inches deep) with parchment paper. (Parchment paper has come to have great importance in my kitchen, and it is my opinion that the person who invented it should get a Nobel Prize.)
2. Melt 1/2 cup cane syrup or black treacle with 6 tablespoons butter.
3. Beat 1 egg with 4 tablespoons buttermilk.
4. Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 heaping teaspoons ground ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar, and a pinch of salt. Mix in 3/4 cup dried currants or raisins.
5. Add the egg mixture, then add the syrup mixture,and mix well.
6. Bake 10 minutes in the 375 oven, turn the heatdown to 325, and bake 35 to 40 minutes more. A fewcrumbs stick to a tester when the cake is done.
The above recipe is an all-around hit and combines many of gingerbread's virtues. It is spicy, heartwarming, and cakelike. You do not need to add one thing: no ice cream, no icing, no poached fruit on the side. It is really and truly good by itself. Continues...