Some people pack slippers when they travel. My husband packs his pillow. I pack my cookbooks. Not all of them, just my current favorite. Usually there is a story in it I'm aching to share with the people I'm visiting. Sometimes there is a recipe too good not to cook while I'm away. Mostly I pack it for the sense of home it offers, just like slippers and pillows.
My first cooking memories start with a cozy Saturday morning sitting on the sofa in my Montreal apartment with my roommate, a pile of cookbooks between us. We were living on our own for the first time, learning how to cook through these shared books. While we had similar tastes, our cooking was not collaborative. We would share tantalizing recipes the way someone might show a friend an outfit they liked in a magazine. Then we would go our separate ways to shop, or not, and cook when the mood was right. Sometimes we would nibble or share but mostly it was a solitary activity. When I left Montreal, I wanted to take those cookbooks with me more than anything else I had acquired during those years.
Sixteen years later, my romance with cookbooks continues, but even better because my children and husband have joined my polyamorous relationship. We engage with a new cookbook unlike anything else.
The cookbook that captured our imaginations last summer was The Family Dinner by Laurie David. What did I love about it besides reinforcing my firmly held belief that dinner eaten together is important? Was it simply vindication and reinforcement that what I hold sacred is shared by someone else? Most readers agree with the essential premise of the book: eating meals together strengthens families. No contest. More than that, this book provides tools, tricks and games to make ordinary meals a special event instead of a routine, a chore.
The day after school let out for the summer, I packed up my kids to spend four weeks caregiving for my mother-in-law. Due to costly baggage surcharges, each person was allowed a single, small suitcase for the trip. I chose to pack The Family Dinner, giving up precious space usually allotted to shoes. Beyond my desire to cook wholesome food for her, and familiar food to soothe our homesickness, I wanted to share the stories, poems, grace and games in Laurie David's book The Family Dinner with our extended family. I long for the deep conversation that keeps people lingering at the table after the eating is done. The conversation prompts and simple games included between recipes were a great addition to our family meals at home. Perhaps they would enliven our dinners away from home too.
Sitting down for a meal with relatives we see once a year, it can be tough to engage in meaningful conversations. Using some of the conversation prompts suggested in the book, we were able to coax some stories about the good old days from great-grandparents reticent to talk about themselves. "Tell Us About...Your wildest winter storm. Your hottest summer." Before long, they were telling us about the time Great-Aunt Alice fell in the outhouse, and the free shoes their Greek Orthodox family were given during the Great Depression by the Salvation Army mission as long as they sat through a fire and brimstone sermon.
Let's Play! Do You Know...What your parents' first three jobs were? We like to ask dinner guests what their worst job has been. Let's Play! Tell Us About...Your wildest winter storm. Your hottest summer. In Seattle, we like to remember the latest snow (April 18, 2008) and the greatest number of days school was closed for snow (five, November 2010).
Cooking dinner is more than just feeding a nuclear unit. It is about winning hearts and minds. Meals are a gathering time, creating ritual, collecting stories and remembering how fortunate we are to be together. At the end of a school day, it is disappointing to hear a robotic 'nothing' in answer to the common question "What did you do at school today?" Taking a prompt from The Family Dinner, I asked "What qualities make a good student? What qualities make a good teacher?" during a recent dinner. When my son was assigned a teacher who had previously taught my daughter, and with whom I had worked as a classroom volunteer, the observations bubbled to the surface. We spoke over each other in an effort to describe her unique attributes to my husband whose demanding job keeps him away from the minutiae of school life. Before long, we were discussing what makes a good friend, business partner, employee, co-worker and boss.
The Family Dinner also inspired me with the chapter about the value of reading at the table. Run out of conversation starters, or eating a meal with reticent sharers? Pull out a book of miscellanea and read a bizarre fact, an unusual word derivation or a cautionary tale about high voltage power lines. On a trip to Portland, I couldn't resist picking off the remainders shelf: The Darwin Awards, The Book of General Ignorance, Funky Freaky Facts and Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. One little inset defines Deipnosophist: Noun. A person skilled in table talk. For most of us, this isn't a skill that comes naturally, but thanks to The Family Cookbook, it is a skill that many of us can learn.
Cookbooks are supposed to be about food as well, and there is plenty there to tempt. When cousins arrived unexpectedly at 4, I knew exactly what to cook: Arroz con Pollo feeds a crowd, without a lot of time spent in the kitchen. While we waited for the chicken to cook, and the storm to abate, we played Slammin' Gramma, a card game explained in Chapter 16: Play with your Dessert: Great Games for After Dinner.
Planning the week's meals together, preempts the annoying 'What are we having for dinner' question, and gives my kids a stake in the family dynamic. Instead of complaining about unpalatable meals, both of my children can rattle off several dishes they like, and several they can eat with less enthusiasm but are still acceptable. Like many resolutions, organizing our menus has not continued with the regularity or the same gusto as those first golden weeks. But we added some favorites to my repertoire and discovered I could make some dishes as well as a restaurant. There's a show-stopper recipe for Vietnamese phό served in a teapot that must be tried.
Vietnamese Soup in a Teapot
For the Pho Broth
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 whole onion, peeled and cut in half
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2-inch chunk ginger, peeled
2 whole star anise
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce, or to taste
Juice of ½ lime
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Garnishes
1 package flat rice noodles soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and drained (or angelhair pasta cooked according to the package
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
A bunch of fresh leafy herbs, washed (mint, basil, Thai basil and cilantro)
1 cup fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons sliced scallions
2 medium carrots, peeled and grated
1 fresh red or green chile, sliced very thin
2 thinly sliced shallots or 1 small red onion, sliced (optional)
Asian chili sauce, more fish sauce, hoisin sauce
To Make 6 servings
--In a large pot, bring the chicken broth, onion, garlic, ginger, star anise, cinnamon stick, and brown sugar to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the chicken and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until it is done. Skim the scum off the surface of the soup. Take out the chicken and shred or cut it into bite-size pieces.
--Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for the rice noodles. Cook them in the boiling water, stirring, for 45 seconds. Drain the noodles in a colander, and rinse under cold water. Toss with the vegetable oil and put in a serving bowl.
--Arrange the herbs in a glass of water as if they were a flower arrangement, and put them on the dinner table.
--Put the chicken and remaining garnishes into individual serving bowls.
Bring the broth back to a simmer. Stir in the fish sauce and lime juice; add salt and pepper if needed. Strain the broth into a teapot. Keep the remaining broth hot on the stove.
--To serve, give each person a bowl, a spoon and chopsticks. Let everyone fill their bowl with the noodles, adding chicken, squeezing lime, tearing off bits of herbs, then passing the teapot to pour the hot broth over.
--Finally, adjust the flavors of your own soup to taste with the sauces and fresh chiles.
Some people say the family that cooks together stays together. I think the family that drools in their cookbooks together has the best chance of eating well and staying connected. Raising a family is a complex stew of coordinating schedules, prioritizing activities, nurturing souls, engaging curious minds and soothing wounded hearts. The best place to accomplish all of these activities is around the family dinner table.