The Absolute Value of a Chocolate Chip Cookie

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, it has no survival value — rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.
— C. S. Lewis

"This is the best restaurant ever!" So said the four-year-old, offered his second chocolate chip "tookie" at our dinner table Sunday night. The ten (yes, ten) of us were crammed into our dining room, talking about our favorite books, confessing our most challenging character traits, and telling our kids the story about that one year in college when Jason basically lived in a closet behind a bathroom in an apartment above 8th Street downtown Holland. 

We shared a great meal (main course, salad, veggies, cheese, bread) and excellent conversation, which is all you really need for it to count as a Sunday supper. But there were also cookies, which strike me as one of those things, not strictly necessary, that add unmeasurable value to a meal. We try not to be a family that expects something sweet after each meal we eat; less sugar is better for everyone, after all, and of course we're technically all set nutritionally after the actual meal itself. But there's a reason that birthday parties and celebratory meals don't quite seem right to me unless there's a little treat: a chocolate, some homemade butterscotch pudding, a tiny dish of the very wonderful blueberry ice cream Jemma chose at the market on Friday afternoon.

Dessert adds that kind of special dimension to the moment. It says: this is lucky; this is worth noticing and enjoying; this is not necessary for survival but it gives value to survival -- much like fresh air on a sunny day, a good song playing in the kitchen while you cook, laughter from your daughter's bedroom just before bedtime, great stories, friendship, philosophy, art. And this dimension has been our greatest return on investment after six months of Sunday suppers. Yes, we've seen some tangible rewards: strengthened relationships, more time in the kitchen and around the table, a chance to model hospitality and generosity for our kids, a bunch of delicious food to nourish us at the start of each week. But six months in, it's things like a four-year-old's exclamation over cookies that make this endeavor worth it. It's the hugs at the back door when old friends leave, the stories we've heard from grandparents that we'd never heard before, the way Jemma takes care to put the napkin on the left and the fork on top of the napkin when she sets the table now. It's time at the sink for me and Jason late on a Sunday night when the house is quiet, the dishwasher is humming, and we're just drying the last of the pots and pans. It's the satisfaction of having spent our Sunday doing something intentional. It's knowing that nothing about this experiment in rest and connection is necessary to our survival, acknowledging that the prep work is sometimes a pain, making one more trip to the grocery store on a Saturday because we're out of an ingredient -- all because, six months in, we're 100 percent sure that the practice is making our life quietly better.

So, six months in: Sunday suppers are the cookies of life. Not strictly necessary for survival. But possibly necessary for making life worth living. 

Signature Chocolate Chip Cookies

For at least ten years, these have been the only chocolate chip cookies I've made. I love to bake, and I've tried two different bran muffins, a dozen versions of apple crisp, lots of brownie recipes, banana bread three ways, and more chocolate cake variations than I can count, but I'm never even tempted to stray from this recipe. It's adapted from The Common Grill Cookbook, and I make it almost as written there except for one thing: I always, always use a mix of chocolates for the chocolate chips. I can't remember why or when I started doing this, but it's the secret to making these really good. I usually make up the 2.5 cups of chocolate chips with about 2 cups of semi-sweet chips and 1/2 c. of a dark chocolate bar, cut roughly into chunks, though I've also subbed in white chocolate and even dried cherries and pecans -- whatever you use, it just needs to total 2.5 cups of mix-ins. This week, though, when I made them for Sunday supper, I used equal parts Guittard milk and semi-sweet chips, which I stumbled across at the local grocery store. Totally worth the splurge on the fancy chocolate. 

  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1 c. brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 T. vanilla
  • 2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt
  • 2 1/2 c. chocolate chips, a mix of semi-sweet, milk, and dark to taste

In large mixing bowl cream the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Continue mixing slowly while adding the brown sugar. Batter should be light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix. Gently fold in dry ingredients and chocolate chips.

Drop 1 generous tablespoon per cookie onto a cookie sheet, spaced an inch or two apart. Chill cookie sheet for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 300. Bake for 13-15 minutes or until golden. Makes 2 dozen large or 3 dozen small cookies. Can be doubled if you're making Wednesday treats for the entire elementary school staff.

Love Does (and Says, and Touches, and Gives, and Shows Up…)

Happy Valentine's Day! Here at Casa Sunday Supper, it's been uber-romantic: early-morning wake-ups from the girls, cancelled piano recitals, piles of tax forms on the dining room table, and a full day of cleaning bedrooms and doing laundry. Later, we're going to venture out into the single-digit temps and go snow-shoeing with some friends and then drink beer, because that's what you do when you live in Michigan in February.

So I'm not here today to write about love -- at least, not the sexy, schmoopy, long-kiss-in-a-movie kind of love. (I'm also not here to weigh in on whether or not people should see 50 Shades of Grey. I didn't read it, simply because I can't abide poor writing; there are too many excellent writers in the world who will never be published to give attention to terrible writers. And I won't see it, simply because I don't watch movies. Because I fall asleep. Honestly, the last movie I saw in the theater was Les Mis. Beat that.)

I am thinking a little about love, though, in the Sunday supper sense, which is to say, in the making-time-for-connection, showing-people-you-care, nourishing, everyday kind of love. When Jason and I were pretty newly married, someone gave me a book called The Five Love Languages. I'd post a picture of it or at least skim through it to give you one good quote, but it's living a sad, neglected life with all my books up in boxes in the attic because old houses don't have bookshelves and I struggle with making home improvement a priority. ANYWAY. What I do remember, years later, is that the book was a little on the cheesy side, a little hokey, maybe, and that it taught me something that's stayed with me ever since. 

The basic premise is this: Everyone has a "love language," which is their primary means of expressing love, most especially in a romantic relationship but also towards friends, family, and even co-workers. The languages are gift-giving, quality time, words of affection, physical touch, and acts of service -- and though most people use all these ways at least a little, most of us also lean toward one or two as our main way of expressing love as well as feeling loved and appreciated.

Not sure which of those is your love language? To figure out what you most crave, notice what you most often do for others when you want to show you care. If you're feeling especially loving toward your partner, do you take out the trash and do the dishes? Tell him how amazing he is? Schedule a date night so you can spend time together? Give him his favorite beer? Or take a cue from 50 Shades and . . . ahem. Whatever you're apt to do for your partner, that's ultimately what you're most receptive to when you want to feel loved.

Here's where Sunday supper fits into all that. I figured out long ago that my primary love languages are gift giving and quality time. It's true for my marriage, my extended family, and my friends. It means, for better or worse, in order for me to feel close to the important people in my life, I need actual face-time with them, and I need to feel known (which is what the gift-giving thing is really all about). It means I'm probably not the friend to call if you want someone to hold you close while you bawl your eyes out about something, but I am the person who will show up and give you my time any hour of the day or night. And I'll bring your favorite cookies, too.

I had coffee last week with a really smart woman I admire a lot. We had one of those weird, wonderful, wide-ranging conversations that happen sometimes with someone you don't necessarily know all that well. We talked about our kids, work, city, and friendships, and we talked about something that's been bothering us both. We noticed when you ask people to list their most important values or priorities, they generally say something like, "God, family, friends" or "Family, community, health" -- lovely sentiments, to be sure. That's not the problem.

The problem is that, so often (and I'm including myself here), the way we're budgeting our time and resources doesn't match up with what we say our priorities are. The way to check this out is by looking in two places: your calendar and your checkbook. So if you say "God, family, friends" are your priorities but the bulk of your time each week is spent shopping online, driving your kids to soccer, and exercising, there's a gap. If you say "Family, community, health" are your priorities but you're spending all your time at work, there's a gap. If we were honest with ourselves, some of us would admit that our priorities these days are actually "Email, driving kids to activities, and losing five pounds." 

Which brings me back to Valentine's Day, and love languages, and Reclaiming Sunday Supper. My gift-giving, quality-time-spending personality wishes I saw my friends more, wishes I could give them something I made with my own two hands. One of my friends, I suspect, just wants her husband to make a romantic gesture instead of always doing acts of service. One of my children, I'm sure, wants nothing more than to be snuggled and cuddled and touched. Another wants my undivided attention and my time. In any case, it's those gestures (or time, or snuggles) that express the love. Loving feelings are not much use, after all, if the object of your affection doesn't get the message in a language they can understand.

It's not romantic, exactly, but it is a good reminder, on a day ostensibly about love, to pause for a moment and ask yourself if the ways you're investing your time and your money are the ways that show love to the people most important to you. It's the nudge I needed to put a few hot chocolate dates with my oldest girl on the calendar, to be sure I take five extra minutes to snuggle while reading to the youngest one when I tuck her into bed. It's a good reminder to take a hard look at the calendar and the checkbook and be sure we're investing in the people we care about the most. And it's an invitation to Sunday supper, if you haven't come already. It won't be Valentine's Day when you come. But it'll be us loving you in the most practical way we know.

So keep reminding yourself: loved, chosen. Love is what we are made of, and what we are made for. Who you love, and whose love you receive, is who you are. It is the meaning of our lives. It is as omnipresent and provable as oxygen. In fact, it IS oxygen.
— Anne Lamott

A Cake for the Generations

As parenting milestones go, a pretty good one for me happened in December. I know, the days of official baby-book moments (first step! first word! first lost tooth!) are long over, but I think this counts just the same. A few weeks ago, the girls baked a cake all by themselves while I drank my coffee.

(Yes, I loitered around the kitchen enough to snap a couple photos, which I dutifully posted to Instagram with the hashtag #winning.)

Even better: the cake they made is an old family recipe from my paternal grandmother, given to me when I got married, and the girls were baking it for a Sunday supper with my parents and my maternal grandfather. According to my mom, this particular cake was a regular at many family gatherings back when she and my dad were newlyweds and my dad's side of the family hadn't yet grown to the size it is today (where it would take about ten of these cakes to feed the crowd). There are many things to love about it -- you'll likely always have all the ingredients on hand, it's quick, it makes the house smell amazing -- but what I think the girls loved best is the magical way pouring a cup of hot water over the dry ingredients before baking creates a pudding-like, gooey chocolate bottom layer you discover when you flip the slice out of the pan and top it with whipped cream.

I can't remember what else we served for dinner that day, but I do remember what we talked about. Table Topics came through, true to form, with a question that seemed too perfect to be true for the occasion: "How was your grandparent's childhood different from yours?" (I swear we didn't stack the deck!) My grandpa reminisced about working as a golf caddy at the country club at a really young age; my mom talked about the way she was allowed to join in sports and games in the neighborhood but not at school, where she had to wear a skirt every day; my dad talked about growing up above his family's little country grocery store and tending to the horses his grandpa kept across the street, and the many things he and his siblings were not allowed to do on Sundays. 

Later, after the girls had squirmed away from the table, my grandpa talked about how comparatively little stuff everyone had, and how, even if you were pretty poor, you didn't really know it; the variation between you and everyone else you knew was quite small, and you were generally happy if you could provide food on the table and a roof over your head. Your world was small, you had the simple pleasures of weekends together, and you were very clear about the differences between needs and wants.

That Sunday night was one of those serendipitous moments that I always hope will happen when we gather around the table, and I wish a videocamera on the ceiling had been taping the whole thing: my grandpa telling stories, the girls listening raptly, my gratitude at four generations of people I love spending a couple hours together, the loveliness of my girls proudly serving a cake they made all by themselves and knowing the recipe has been in my family for longer than I've been alive. Already, just a month or two later, I've forgotten some of the details, but the lesson stays with me: less stuff, more time. And, now that no-treat January is over, more chocolate cake.

The problem is not simply that we work too much, the problem is that we are working for the wrong reward. We are paid in the wrong currency. We reward the fruits of our labor and the sweat of our brow with money, good, and services. We need to seek instead a more fertile, healing balance of payments — some of our pay in money, and some of our pay in time.
— Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives

Chocolate Upside-Down Cake

for the cake:

  • 1 C. flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 T. shortening or butter (I use butter; my mom uses shortening)
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 t. vanilla

Cream together sugar and butter. Add milk and vanilla and blend until mixed well. Add flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, blend well, and press into a greased 9x9 pan.

for the topping:

  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. cocoa
  • 1 c. very hot water

Mix sugars and cocoa together, sprinkle over cake evenly, and slowly pour hot water over all. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. To serve, cool slightly, cut into squares, and flip squares over as you remove from pan so the chocolate layer is on top. Top with whipped cream. To double, double all ingredients and bake in a 9x13 pan.


On Limits

I think that this may be the truth of these technologies that we carry around: We film and post and read social media constantly in order to capture something, some exciting moment or feeling or experience that we are afraid to miss, but the things about life that we most want to capture may not be, in the end, capturable.
— Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network

This last week was a long, busy one for our family, even though the school/workweek was technically only four days long. Come Friday morning, my brain was fried, Jason wasn't feeling well, and -- bonus! -- the girls had the day off school. What had initially looked like a prime opportunity to sneak away for a day to practice our newfound skiing skills as a family slowly ebbed into a day where, by noon, I had only really conquered work email and none of us were dressed. In spite of my occasional declarations that "We should really go do something," what ended up happening was that we never left the house and the girls, whose during-the-week screen time is essentially zilch, spent untold hours playing Wii. 

To nobody's surprise, by the time 5:00 rolled around, everyone was cranky. Instead of feeling lucky that they'd gotten away with bursting all previous screen-time records, the girls were fractious and bickering, Jason and I too lethargic to figure out what to cook for dinner. It was not our finest moment as a family, but it did confirm a suspicion I've had for a while now about happiness and screens.

I know screens are pretty much universally bad for kids' brain development. And our family is, frankly, usually too busy during the week to even consider getting close to the national average, which is reported to be between three and seven hours per day. So those have always been my reasons for no screens during the week and very limited iPad, Wii, and television on weekends: it's bad for your brain, and we're too busy doing other things (piano practice, reading, sports, homework, and actual playing outside in our neighborhood, luckily). But it turns out studies are starting to show excess screen time has a negative effect on health and happiness even as it increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Hmm. What might this have to do with Reclaiming Sunday Supper? I thought about this connection a lot as I read the book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter by Susan Pinker. The book's chapters range widely, with one delving into the longevity found in a cluster of remote Sardinian villages and another summing up research on long-term survival rates in breast cancer patients. But the chapter that interested me the most was "Who's Coming to Dinner," a survey of the available data on the ways communal eating influences obesity, racism, and friendship. Pinker finds that brain imaging studies show that the neural mechanisms activated by the act of sharing food in person -- not via Skype, though -- are key to feeling pleasure. She also digs into the reasons behind the now-well-known mantra that eating family dinner can be key to better outcomes for kids.

"Research shows that skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, academic standing in high school, scores on college entrance tests, and much more besides -- all are linked to sitting down to family dinner," Pinker writes. Why does eating together regularly increase academic performance and decrease depression, drug use, sex, suicide, and eating disorders? Pinker -- and the researchers -- thinks it's a bunch of things (family income, rituals, a sense of belonging) but mostly this: "Sharing meals is an intimate act, an expression of the closeness of our family bonds. It's also a way for kids and parents to check in daily and connect."

If spending time together with the people we love -- friends, family, neighbors -- boosts our happiness and our success, why are we doing less of it and not more? In his book In the Neighborhood by Peter Lovenheim, he writes, "According to social scientists, from 1974 to 1998 the frequency with which Americans spent a social evening with neighbors fell by about one third . . . Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines, and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don't know the people who live next door?"

I hypothesize it's this: We've been fooled into thinking that we're just as connected to those we love when we like their Facebook status or send them a fun text as we are when we hug them hello or clink wine glasses together across the table. But it's clearly not true. I saw it on Friday; a day spent largely tethered to technology and screens left us feeling grumpy, empty, dissatisfied -- and that's the opposite of the way we felt last Sunday night as we bid farewell to the fun couple we hosted for Sunday supper.

In a sense, we're all like little kids, so easily addicted to the little rectangle in our hand or the big rectangle on the wall that we'll use it and use it and use it until someone puts a limit on us because they know better. I have a suspicion that the Sabbath, in its simplest sense, is God putting a limit on us, not just on the number of hours we look at our Twitter feed but on the number of minutes we ignore the relationships that mean the most in favor of a laptop or a football game or a heated-up microwave meal scarfed down in front of a television show. 

‘Remember the Sabbath’ is not simply a life-style suggestion. It is a spiritual precept in most of the world’s spiritual traditions.
— Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives

I'm totally not anti-technology. My life wouldn't be as rich without the article I read about education in The Atlantic this morning, the Instagram feed of a dear friend who lives states away, the blogs written by women I admire, the amazing Facebook gems Anne Lamott posts from time to time. My kids use Google docs and play Wii bowling like pros, and that's fine with me. But I don't want to forget there's literally no replacement for taking time out of our week to look the people we love in the eye and share a meal together. And even though it can feel good sometimes to binge-watch old episodes of 30 Rock (I did this last night, actually), that's ultimately not the kind of rest and connection we really need. Sacred texts and traditions from multiple religions remind us, and we remind ourselves when we compare the way we feel after a day full of iPhone with a day full of rest and connection.

Most of us not born in Sardinian mountain villages still hanker for the feeling of belonging — not to mention the extra twenty years of life — that those villages bestow. Though few of us are willing to give up the educational and occupational opportunities of the present for the inequalities of the past and the very real privations of old-style rural life, at some level we still want a piece of it. The most common reaction to a 2013 radio documentary I wrote about the phenomenon of Sardinian super-longevity was I want to live there — even from people in their twenties and thirties . . . Despite our being increasingly tethered to the devices that connect us virtually, there has not been a corresponding uptick in well-being. In fact, it’s the reverse. By and large we’re lonelier and unhappier than we were in the decades before the Internet age.
— Susan Pinker, The Village Effect

Little Victories

If you know me, it's no secret: I hate winter. It's my least favorite season. Once the magic of Christmas is over, I'd love nothing more than to just flip the calendar to April, bypassing all the gloomy cold and shooting straight ahead to windows-open, run-outside, daffodil-blooming days.

But I live in Michigan, so January through March finds me alternately trying my best to embrace the season (be cozy by the fire! borrow some snowshoes and traipse through the woods!) and despairing that the end will never come as I look with longing at airfare to warmer climes and, sometimes, give in to my desire to eat carbs in bed with a book for an embarrassing amount of hours in a row. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'll be sure to let you know when that happens. Give me about three more weeks and I'll probably be in a very dark place.)

I'm happy to report, though, that this weekend was pretty full of our family embracing the season. There were lots of little victories, which I'll take where I can get when it's January and temperatures are in the single digits.

First of all, we skied. Together. And there was no crying. Now, I didn't grow up skiing, so I don't know if I'll ever quite share Jason's love for the sport. So even after years of haphazard lessons and random days on the "mountains" of Michigan, after we've finally acquired all the gear by buying a friend's brother's old skis here, going to some guy in Hudsonville's garage there, and after we've packed two ginormous bags of said gear into the car and driven it up north, I still rarely feel like a real skier. There's always that moment when I have five or six layers of clothes on and I'm sweating profusely while trying to force a child's foot into a ski boot while my goggles fog up that I'm like, Why do we do this again? And there was that moment this weekend, too, but it was followed by a surprisingly sunny afternoon of the four of us laughing on the lift, Jemma skiing her first black diamond, me consistently being the last one down the hill, and lots of hot chocolate by the fire and warm baths apres ski. For once, all the logistics and gear and driving were worth it. And one morning? I really did snowshoe through the woods.

Another little victory I've noticed recently: I've basically stopped checking my email on the weekends, and it's making a huge difference in my happiness -- and in my productivity come Monday morning. It's probably one part intentional time away from technology inspired by this project and one part sheer laziness, but I've slowly realized over the last several weeks that the world does not fall apart if I don't write back to that freelancer looking for an assignment or wait one day to respond to an invitation or a question. I'm not the president of a country and I'm not an ER doctor on call, so whatever it is can likely wait a day or two. And when Monday morning comes? I actually feel rested and refreshed, ready to sit down at my desk with a big mug of coffee (please note that the January detox does not extend to coffee, though I think I have successfully weaned myself off the carcinogenic-but-delicious CoffeeMate creamer by replacing it with almond/coconut milk) and dash off a few dozen emails in a row.

To be sure, it's still tempting sometimes to pull the laptop onto the couch and "just do a few things" while Jason watches football on a Sunday afternoon. But I've found I'm happier when I don't, when I let myself stare off into space for five minutes, do one thing around the house, take a walk, browse through a cookbook, hang out with the girls, and enjoy one last hour of an above-average winter weekend before embracing work again on Monday. 

One of the astonishing attributes of Sabbath time is its unflinching uselessness. Nothing will get done, not a single item will be checked off any list. Nothing of significance will be accomplished, no goal realized. It is thoroughly without measureable value.
— Wayne Muller

One last victory this weekend: cassoulet. To be clear, not the delicious, authentic, full-of-duck-confit cassoulet I ate on Saturday night at La Becasse in a pre-planned deviation from No Treat January (because when you're eating at that restaurant with good friends for the third year in a row after wrangling kids on the slopes all day, you throw No Treat January out for the night -- and you get some good Gigondas red to go with the cassoulet). I'm talking, though, about the modified, pretty-healthy-for-you cassoulet we made for Sunday supper last night when we returned. It's a Shauna Niequist recipe from her book Bread and Wine, and she cites an old Real Simple recipe as its origin, and I've modified it to make it my own; isn't that the way with most recipes? In any case, it manages to be hearty and healthy. It makes the house smell great. And one of the second-graders at the table last night had seconds. 

So this is me, writing from the cold of January, reminding myself to enjoy these freezing cold weekends while they last, to keep ignoring my phone on the weekends except perhaps to use its camera, and to make more cassoulet. Nobody is ever sorry about cassoulet.

Easy Cassoulet

  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1 lb Italian turkey sausage, casings removed
  • 1 c. chicken broth
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 1 large parsnip, diced
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 T. tomato paste
  • 1/4 c. red wine
  • 2 15-oz. cans cannellini beans, drained
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 c. panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 T. butter, melted

In a large, oven-proof dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat and cook the sausage until browned, breaking it up with a fork. Remove to a plate; do not drain the drippings from the dutch oven.

In the same pan, saute the onion, carrots, parsnips, tomato, tomato paste, half the garlic, salt, and pepper for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Deglaze the pan with wine, and when it's cooked off add the chicken broth, cannellini beans, and sausage back to the pot. Add the thyme and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about one hour, until vegetables are tender. 

Meanwhile, heat oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter and combine it with the breadcrumbs and the remaining garlic. Sprinkle evenly over the cassoulet and place cassoulet in the oven, uncovered, to bake until the crust is golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.


I know New Year's Day was last Thursday (though details are blurry), but for working adults and parents of school-aged children alike, today really seemed to me like the fresh start. Maybe it's because we snuck in a few more days of celebration and debauchery right up until the evening of January 4, and maybe it's because this morning found me throwing out all the treats in the house and buying great quantities of citrus fruit, kale, and sparkling water while the kids straggled back to school and the work emails began coming in fast and furious, but I'm going to say today's still legit as far as fresh starts and resolutions go. 

Other than the aforementioned scaling things waaaaay back in the food and drink department at the start of a new year (this month is formally known in our house as "No-Treat January" -- ask my kids about it; they love it (sarcasm)), I tend to make very few formal resolutions. One year I resolved publicly to do a triathlon, which I did, but other than that I can't remember any big proclamations. I do try to sit down and jot down a few ideas, habits, or little goals. They're small shifts, usually -- course corrections, I like to call them. Here's what I wrote at the close of last year:

Next week, we’ll all dive back in to our crazy schedule and I’ll dive into a much-needed detox from alcohol and red meat and sugar, and before I know it we’ll be hauling out the porch furniture again and sleeping with the windows open. But I do hope 2014 holds more of the same (professional challenges, family time, travel, music, great food) and a few new opportunities, too. I hope for lots of small-but-wonderful moments. I hope for balance, and more vegetables, and spontaneous adventures, and meaningful service, and deepening friendships, and a better handle on my DSLR, and better posture. I hope we find a church that makes our whole family feel at home. I hope I remember that I only have this one wild and precious life and to seize the day with as much grace and good humor as I can muster.

No resolutions for me. Just pointing my compass in the right direction, fortifying myself with some green smoothies and hot yoga, and jotting down a list every night before I go to bed.

Last January, I also made a simple "More/Less" list, which, shockingly, did not disappear completely in the scary piles of paper that live on my desk. It's sitting right next to me just this minute; here, I'll tell you. In the "more" category I wrote: DSLR photography (fail); scheduled one-on-one time with each kid (meh, sort of); vegetables (nope); yoga (yep); church (yes!); time with siblings/parents/cousins (yes again); creative writing (see this very page); new friends (hmm, a few); and service (working on it). In the "less" column, I wrote: Instagram (nope; totally addicted); wasted weekends (doing pretty well); meat (probably not); lazy workouts (what did I even mean by this? sheesh); procrastination (lifelong habit, getting better); and living in "the bubble" (excellent progress there).

I know this is probably interesting to nobody else but me, but I bring it up here to say that, even though I haven't looked at this list every day, I have referred to it here and there, and just the act of reflecting and writing a few things down ended up changing the course of my year in ways I couldn't have imagined back in January of 2014. I hadn't even dreamed up Reclaiming Sunday Supper yet, we hadn't yet found the church we'd end up joining, and I hadn't even applied -- much less been accepted -- into the leadership program I've been a part of since September. Looking back on 2014, those three things have easily contributed to me achieving about half of my little goals for the year. 

Which brings me to today, January 5, my self-declared New Year's Day for work-at-home moms everywhere. I haven't made a list or written down any small ideas, but I have recommitted to focusing my energy here a bit more, though other things constantly clamor for my attention. Just as our family has found we never regret making time for Sunday supper with family or friends, I never regret parking myself at my laptop for half an hour with a glass of wine (or, in January, sparkling water with lemon). I miss it when I'm not here, the way we missed the one Sunday we had to cancel Sunday supper because Jemma had the flu. And even as the event itself becomes more casual (I could barely imagine changing out of my sweatpants when our friends came yesterday, so I just didn't) and it comes to feel like more of our regular Sabbath routine than something novel we're trying on, I keep finding tidbits in the world everywhere I look, reminding me why resolving to spend more time resting and connecting around the table with people you love is always a good thing.

One of my Leadership Grand Rapids classmates shared this quote with our group in December, and it's echoed in my head ever since. It's from Thomas Merton, and I think it's worth considering if you're still mulling over your own goals and resolutions for 2015.

So in that "less" column: less frenzy, less activism, less overwork, less commitment, less contemporary violence. And, if I may humbly suggest, more good conversation around the table, more Sabbath in your life, more permission to rest, more imperfection, more radical empathy. I'll just be looking forward to more Sundays around our big farm table, and to quietly showing up here to tell you about it. 

Happy New Year.

These Are Great Days

Pinned to the bulletin board on the wall above my desk is a birthday card a good friend gave me a couple of years ago. On the front, there's a drawing of a tire swing and the words, "Those were the days . . . and so are these." Gosh, I love it. It captures so much of what I feel about this stage of life -- and so much of what our family is trying to do with Reclaiming Sunday Supper.

Already, just a few years since receiving that card, I'm looking back fondly on earlier years with the girls: their cheeks, so round and rosy; their voices, so high-pitched; their world, almost entirely of my making (their need for me, basically all-consuming . . . let's not forget that part, shall we?). But I'm noticing that these are the days, too -- right now. That old "witching hour" hell of 4:00-5:00 p.m. whining and melt-downs and literally counting the moments until Jason walked in the door has been replaced by a new, sweet, after-school time of day, when the girls are pretty self-motivated to sit down with their homework at the dining room table, one using her Google docs to create a slideshow on Ecuador, maybe, while the other one practices her piano. They help set the table for dinner. They ask me about my day, or they ask how many centuries it's been, or they talk about which friend scored which part in the school play. 

When it comes to Sunday suppers, I'm definitely not trying to white-wash the past and get all nostalgic for the good-old, simpler days, when every family sat down for a big meal on Sunday after church, come hell or high water. That was a great tradition, to be sure, and we're trying to make it work for us today, but I don't imagine that things were perfect during the sabbaths of the 1950s any more than they are perfect around our dining room table in 2014. Has this experiment changed our family in the last few months? I think it has: we're practicing the values of hospitality and generosity, we're working rest and connection into our Sundays, and we're strengthening relationships with our family and friends while reaching out to new people. But it's a far cry from the strict church/dinner/nap/church my parents and grandparents grew up with, and that's OK. Last week Sunday it was literally take-out pizza, veggies, some ugly homemade gingerbread cookies, and screw-top wine with the neighbors. We're making it our own.

In her book The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers (raising a tween or teen right now? I recommend), Wendy Mogel writes:

There was a time when a young person rose when an adult entered the room, would not consider calling adults by their first names, and automatically came to the door to pick up a date. I am not nostalgic for this time. Socially acceptable behavior also included discrimination of every sort, sweeping family problems under the rug, and establishing household order through intimidation and submissive deference to Dad the All-Knowing Patriarch.

Things in 2014 seem messier, more complicated. Parenting feels high-pressure, Pinterest is lurking in the background trying to make us all feel inadequate, schedules are tight and the news from the outside world seems at times insurmountably awful. It's definitely NOT the 1950s anymore, is what I'm saying, and I don't especially think it should be. Because here's the freedom we have today: We get to make up our own rules as we go. We get to ask the big, tough questions. We all have a bit more freedom to make our life look the way we want it to. We get to start our own traditions, sabbath and otherwise. We get to, as my dear, smart, strong yoga instructor reminded me this morning, both believe there is good in the world and BE the good in the world. 

Next week Sunday will be the darkest day of the year. Every year I note the Winter Solstice with a tiny bit of relief, reminding myself that the days only get longer, brighter, warmer from here (though it often doesn't seem so in February -- or, here in Michigan, even necessarily in April). And last Sunday at church, the sermon was partly about darkness. During Advent, those themes of darkness and light, with the promise of the star above the manger, are the ones that stick with me the most.

Next week Sunday, we'll be here, around our table with some friends, believing that taking the time to share a meal is a little bit of light in the darkness. When things seem dark, hard, overwhelmingly impossible (cancer, Ferguson, poverty, violence, raising teenagers), I try to remind myself that these are great days. Not because the impossible things don't exist, but in spite of them and right alongside them. And my favorite reminder for this is the quote in the hallway of our house.

Churchill, for some context, didn't say this when the war was over and The Allies had prevailed. No; he said it in 1941, deep in the awfulness of World War II, just as the enormity of the situation was becoming obvious. I look at that every time I come in our house, and I think, well, if Churchill declared it under those circumstances, then it must be true today. 

The Most Brutiful Time of the Year

The turkey has been eaten, and the Christmas tree has been chosen, cut, and forced into service in our living room. We decorated it last night and now it's twinkling merrily in our front window and filling the house with its lovely smell. The Christmas cards have been ordered but not addressed; I've brainstormed a decent amount of delightful, age-appropriate, unique gift ideas for most of the people on my list but not purchased many of them; we're fielding lots of lucky invitations for little parties here and family gatherings there but still not sure exactly when we'll celebrate Christmas with my side. All of this to say, the holiday season is upon us.

The most wonderful time of the year? Well, maybe. In the years when the girls were younger and needier and I barely had a second to eat my own food without getting up to do something, I'd be in the car in the weeks before Christmas and feel decidedly un-wonderful when that song came on. I'd be hauling two small, grouchy children to the grocery store for the 87th time, perhaps, or trying to track down one last gift with a toddler in tow, and it didn't really feel like "the hap-happiest season of allllll." In fact, I pretty much wanted to punch someone in the face when that song came on.

Even today, I don't know if I'd say it's the most wonderful. It has moments of great beauty, to be sure: the traditional tree-decorating/Elf-watching/fire-in-the-fireplace coziness; the gingerbread-scented, peanut-butter-fudge-making, sticky little hands in the kitchen projects; the delight on Christmas morning; the friends and family raising a toast to another year together. For me, it's hard to beat Christmas Eve, with its candlelight carols at church followed by a fancy fondue dinner and, eventually, tucking the girls in with their hearts full of anticipation.

But there's plenty of darkness mixed in with those twinkle lights. Lots of people face the holidays missing someone they love. I don't know a great deal about that, but I couldn't miss the cracks in my grandpa's voice as he said grace over the Thanksgiving table on Thursday. My parents are getting used to a holiday season without their mothers, and lots of other people in the world are missing loved ones, too. And the bounty of the holidays always seem to stand in such stark contrast to those in the world who are struggling to get by in difficult circumstances. Not to mention the way the list of obligations (cards! presents! a dish to pass!) seems to grow exponentially this time of year.

To borrow a Glennon word, I think it's the most brutiful time of year -- part beauty, part brutal humanity. A few years ago, at the height of wanting to punch someone in the face each time I heard the aforementioned song, I found myself in tears on Christmas night, so overwhelmed with busy obligations and frantic expectations that I had completely lost sight of the joy and light of the season. It had been so easy to let others set the agenda that I found myself at the end of what was supposed to be the best, most special time of the year feeling depleted and disappointed, bitter and exhausted. It was time to make a change.

I remembered one of my mom's best pieces of advice, something she cribbed from Ann Landers -- "No one can take advantage of you without your permission" -- and I had a stern talk with myself about priorities and pleasing others. I read the book Quiet by Susan Cain, and I remembered that being an introvert means I need to build time into my life for quiet, even (especially) in a world that wants to speed things up at the holidays. I read a blog post by Shauna Niequist called Present Over Perfect (go read it) that articulated my own thoughts and experiences almost exactly and gave me the permission I needed to say no to some things in favor of protecting myself and my family at Christmas. I took a step back and realized the saying "You can't please all of the people all of the time" applies to moms as much as to politicians. And I reminded myself that I was a grown-up, 100 percent responsible for the ways I spend my time and my life.

This is the best and worst possible news. On the one hand, being a grown-up means that when the furnace dies on the day before Thanksgiving, I'm the one who has to call the furnace guy and haggle over price on the phone. Ugh. It means I'm the one who has to get the babysitter, get the groceries, pay the bills, make the reservations, make the decisions. On the other hand, it means I'm responsible for the way I spend my time, money, and energy. It means nobody can hijack my Christmas without my permission, and it means that creating a sane holiday season is up to me, too.

Here's what our family has done since that Christmas night emotional breakdown. We've said no, thanks to a few longstanding traditions that weren't working for us. We've set aside time during Advent to find the still, small voice that reminds us why we're celebrating in the first place. We've been more intentional about seeking out opportunities with our family to give back a bit, both during the holidays and throughout the year. And we've created a few new, more meaningful traditions that work for our little family of four.

This year, we'll continue our Sunday suppers as a way to hit "pause" each week. So far, this little experiment has taught us the value of setting limits, being intentional with our time, and building more rest and connection into our life. Tomorrow, my brother and his wife are going to join us, and we're looking forward to catching up with them since we missed each other at Thanksgiving. Last week, Jason's brother and his family came for a long, lazy afternoon and a big hunk of pork. (And if you think that having a brother-in-law who owns a brewery means he brings great quantities of great beer to your house for Sunday supper, you're right.) 

This year, no matter what other craziness is going on (cocktail parties! staff celebrations! choir concert at school! cookie exchange!), Sundays will find me basking in the glow of our Christmas tree, belly and heart full of the bruty of the season, trying to tip the scales in favor of beauty.

Pork Fried Rice

I've loved Molly Wizenberg's winsome food blog, Orangette, for years, and I devoured her first book, A Homemade Life, a few years ago. I still make her banana bread regularly, and her writing voice is one I really admire. So when she came out with her second book, Delancey, (about the trials and tribulations of opening a Seattle pizza place with her husband) earlier this year, Jason got it for me for my birthday and I gobbled it up too. I liked it fine, but it really reminded me of my brother- and sister-in-law, Trevor and Lisa, who, two years ago, opened a sweet little brewery downtown Holland. I still remember the conversation we had around the table a year or so before the brewery became a reality, Trevor announcing his plans and us nodding politely, privately thinking what a terrible idea it was. I remember Lisa laughing a bit maniacally months later, her eyes wide: "We own a bar!" And so they do -- a successful, wonderful one at that. These days, I'm a fan of Our Brewing Co's coconut porter, Jason's partial to the Careless Whisper IPA, and we're pretty proud of their DIY brand of business ownership -- and their real-life example for our girls of one way to follow a dream and make it a reality. It seemed appropriate to make a Delancey recipe for Sunday supper with Trevor and Lisa, so we made Molly's sweet and sour pork, loaded with fish sauce and cooked low and slow for hours. It was good, but the star of last week's menu was actually the fried rice I made with the leftover pork for dinner a couple nights later. It's modeled after another Delancey recipe, Fried Rice with Kale, but I subbed spinach for kale and switched up the seasonings a bit too. Jason had seconds, and I'll make it again, but get ready to ruin a pan if you don't have a wok. (Deglazing immediately with water helps with the clean-up.)

  • 3 T. peanut or vegetable oil, divided
  • one bunch greens, such as kale, spinach, or chard, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice
  • 4 cups cold cooked leftover white rice
  • 4 oz leftover shredded pork
  • 1 dash each fish sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil
  • 1 fried egg, to top, optional

Heat 1 T. oil in wok or large skillet until very hot, then add greens and sauté until charred and wilted. Remove greens to a bowl and top with fresh lemon juice. Add remaining 2 T. oil to hot skillet and add rice, smashing it to the bottom and sides of the pan in a single layer with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and letting cook, undisturbed, for 30 seconds to a minute. Scrape rice up, redistribute, smash it to pan again, and continue cooking until rice is fried to desired doneness. Scrape rice up, stir, and add pork and seasonings, stirring constantly, just to heat through. Add rice and pork mixture to bowl of greens, season to taste with salt and pepper, and top with a fried egg.

Table Topics

Oh, hi.

I know, I know . . . it's been a while. We have, indeed, still been reclaiming Sunday supper -- two weekends ago, around a big, long table at Jolly Pumpkin Brewery with two other families on a Sunday afternoon before a treacherous drive home through the snow and ice, and last weekend, at our house with a dear family of five. I walked in the door last Sunday at 5:45 pm, straight from a four-day weekend with my best college girlfriends and an even-more-treacherous drive home through the snow and ice from Chicago, and I've never been so grateful for a warm house, a glass of wine, and a husband who cooks. 

About that weekend with my girlfriends. It was our thirteenth one, we think (the math gets a little sketchy, though there's a journal somewhere in which we try valiantly to record details every couple of years), and though getting together is a logistical nightmare every year, it's a tradition we cling to fiercely. Some years (before we began having kids -- 17 total between the six of us), we did adventurous things: whitewater rafting in West Virginia, horse races in Kentucky, hiking in North Carolina. Then we started having more kids and getting less sleep, and the last few years, our weekends have been largely about gathering somewhere (one of our houses, maybe a spot on Lake Michigan) simply to rest and connect. Some days, we struggle to get out of our pajamas before dinner. We mean to get out into the world and have adventures, but the thing is, we have so many things to say. And last weekend was no different.

We had restaurant reservations each night, sure (and I'd strongly recommend this, this, and especially this if you're hitting the Windy City soon), but, as we told the lovely woman at the front desk when we arrived at our little condo/hotel (another A+ recommendation, by the way), "All we really need is a table."

Our room wasn't quite ready yet when we arrived on Thursday, so the four of us who had driven settled down in the library. A few trashy magazines, a bottle of wine, and a long table surrounded by walls of bookshelves while the snow fell outside? We were completely happy. Later in the weekend, when our whole party of six had finally convened, we cozied up around the coffee table in our condo with oatmeal and coffee in the morning, cocktails and cheese in the evening -- one night until two in the morning.

I love that absolutely no topic is off limits, that these women have known me since I was a college freshman, that our long, tangential conversations cover everything from parenting to fashion, from careers to church, from food to dreams. Thirteen years in, we still haven't run out of things to say when we hunker down around a table. Last weekend, we toasted to that, to our smart friend the doctor who just passed her oral boards, and to not being able to keep track of the years together.

And then, bonus: walking in the door on Sunday night from a weekend around the table with my best girls, I got to glory in one more round of around-the-table talk with my family and one other. Jason had made gourmet mac and cheese (recipe from Clarkston Union), among other things, and the girls had set the table and gotten out the Table Topics. The five kids at the table took turns reading the questions, and we laughed at some answers and were sobered a little by the sweet honesty of a five-year-old, but never ran out of things to say. We got to hear each other's stories, which is what time around the table is really always about.

The Unmentionable

Two crucial ingredients for time at the table with friends (grown-up ones, at least) are a good cocktail and a great story. Our family loves the Table Topics family cube so much that I brought along a dinner party cube to Chicago for my girls' weekend. We barely used it, and that's probably because we're all so desperate to share our most inappropriate stories with one another that basic questions don't quite do the trick. But if you're around the table with someone besides your college roommates, I recommend the cube for fun conversation. And if you're looking for a good cocktail to start off your night, I recommend The Unmentionable, which I had for the first time last winter at Mani Osteria in Ann Arbor. I went back last summer, promptly ordered it again, and planted myself at the bar to watch exactly how it was made. Then I went to Art of the Table here in town to track down the ingredients so I could make as many as I wanted at home. I made a round last weekend in Chicago and nobody was disappointed.

  • 2 oz. Bulleit rye
  • 1 oz. Antica Formula (vermouth)
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 4-5 dashes walnut bitters
  • 1 t. apricot marmalade
  • sprig of fresh thyme and slice of lemon rind, to garnish

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour rye, vermouth, bitters, lemon juice, and marmalade into shaker. Cover and shake for 30 seconds, until very cold and marmalade is mixed in. Pour entire mixture (ice cubes and all) into a glass, and garnish with thyme and lemon.


Ten Signs You Need More Sabbath In Your Life

1. You wake up on Monday morning, already tired before the work week has begun.

2. When someone asks you how you are, you say, "Good - busy!" like it's all one word.

3. You actively fantasize about a short hospital stay (nothing serious, of course), or about holing up in a hotel room alone where nobody can find you.

4. You're a caregiver for needy little children or elderly family members, or you're in charge of a bunch of people at work. (Bonus reason: You're the default parent.)

5. You nod your head along with this quote from the book Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols:

Too many of us live overwhelmed — suffocated by work, personal conflicts, the intrusion of technology and media. Trying to do everything, we end up stressed about almost anything. We check our voice mail at midnight, our e-mail at dawn, and spend the time in between bouncing from website to website, viral video to viral video. Perpetually exhausted, we make bad decisions at work, at home, on the playing field, and behind the wheel. We get flabby because we decide we don’t have the time to take care of ourselves, a decision ratified by the fact that those “extra” hours are filled with e-mailing, doing reports, attending meetings, updating systems to stay current, repairing what’s broken. We’re constantly trying to quit one habit just to start another. We say the wrong things to people we love, and love the wrong things because expediency and proximity make it easier to embrace what’s passing right in front of us. We make excuses about making excuses, but we still can’t seem to stop the avalanche.

6. You have a love-hate relationship with your phone, full as it is of texts, work emails, carpool schedules, and Instagram photos of people doing fun and amazing things.

7. Oprah says you do: 

What I know for sure is that giving yourself time to just be is essential to fulfilling your mission as a human being. So I give myself Sundays. Sometimes I spend the whole day in my pajamas, sometimes I have church under the trees communing with nature. Most times I just do nothing – piddling, I call it – and let my brain and body decompress. Whenever I’ve slipped up and missed a Sunday, I’ve noticed a definite change in my disposition for the rest of the week. I know for sure that you cannot give to everybody else and not give back to yourself. You will end up empty, or at best, less than what you can be for yourself and your famiy and your work. Replenish the well of yourself, for yourself.

8. You don't think you have time to rest:

From the book Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab:

’I didn’t know I was allowed to rest.’

What’s going on in our culture, in our world, that a mother with young children believes she’s supposed to be active and productive every minute? Why is it scary to think about stopping or slowing down all this relentless activity? Why do we need to justify our existence by constant motion? Why would we think we aren’t allowed to rest?

9. You're human.

Yes, we are strong and capable people, we can work without stopping, faster and faster, electric lights making artificial day so the whole machine can labor without ceasing. But remember: No living thing lives like this. There are greater rhythms that govern how life grows: circadian rhythms, seasons and hormonal cycles and sunsets and moonrises and great movements of seas and stars. We are part of the creation story, subject to all its laws and rhythms. (From the book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller.)

10. You're still reading Reclaiming Sunday Supper even though you hate to cook. 

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?


Last night, for the second Sunday in a row, we hosted some people for Sunday supper whom we really didn't know very well, and with whom we don't have a ton in common. Two weeks ago, it was someone I've worked with on a few projects in the last year or two plus her husband. They're not even thirty yet, no kids, have already done a million interesting things, and are about to embark on eight months of around-the-world travel before settling down in upstate New York to run the family apple farm. Last night, it was a neighbor, who I've also worked with a bit off and on, plus her husband and sweet baby. She eats vegan, they've been married just a year, and they both run their own small businesses.

Having those people around our table could have been strange and awkward, but it wasn't, which I chalk up to the magic of Sunday supper. Last night, one of the guests remarked on how rare it is these days to be invited into someone's home for a meal; he said how common it is to meet up with friends at a restaurant or maybe order pizza to watch sports in someone's living room, but that it had been years since they'd cooked with friends. The week before, Jason had never spent much time with either of the pair, and they didn't really know our kids, but the simple act of gathering around the table tends to break down those barriers, and we never even ended up using the handy Table Topics cube that our girls are always dying to use.

I think it proves a few things. One, people just want to be asked. Two, in almost any situation, it's possible to find common ground. Jason is a pro at this; give him five minutes with someone and he's found out where they grew up and what kind of music they like and what their favorite beer is. And three, it's good for us – and our kids – to practice being around people who are outside of our usual bubble.

Getting ready for last night, I was explaining what, exactly, eating vegan means ("Mom, what are we even going to eat?" and "But milking the cows doesn't hurt them!"), and our family welcomed the chance to cook and collaborate in a different way (less bacon, less butter is probably a smart move for us, especially as the holiday season approaches). I tweaked my standard, made-it-a-million-times risotto to be vegan and swapped coconut oil for butter in the apple crisp topping. And the week before, I hope we made up for our slapdash, semi-homemade dinner (if you must buy the pie, buy it at Crane's, and serve it with whipped cream you've fancied up with apple cider, cinnamon, vanilla, or bourbon) with some great conversation about traipsing around Italy and what it's like to own a food truck. The girls played the piano for all our guests, and in return, I like to think they got a glimpse of the many different ways there are to build a rich and interesting life.

When we started this project, we really envisioned it as a way to get more intentional about connecting with our closest friends and family – and we've got a few dinners in the coming weeks with people who fit that bill. But one unexpected benefit is the way it's forged new connections to people who might eat, live, vote, think, and parent differently than we do, people who we knew because of profession or proximity but would now count as friends. Election Day is tomorrow, and at the height of partisan propaganda, it's important to extend hospitality and to love our neighbor as ourselves, right? (I've written about this before, and maybe it bears mentioning again, but my basic political philosophy is "Don't Be a Jerk." Maybe I should add, " . . . and make a place at the table for everyone" to that motto?)

Next weekend, we'll skip Sunday supper at our house for the first time since we started this experiment in September. We'll be up north for the annual bike race Jason insists on putting himself through each November (for proof, it's called "The Iceman Cometh"). Sunday will find us with a couple other local families, cozied up around a big table on Old Mission Peninsula. It'll be Sunday supper-ish – the camaraderie and time spent around a table, just not our own dining room table. In our absence, maybe those of you who have been stopping me on the sidewalk or chatting me up over a pint of beer, saying you wish you did this kind of thing, can do this kind of thing? I'm not saying you have to go all-in and commit to a month or a year of Sunday supper. Start small. Next Sunday, think about asking someone to join you for a stolen hour or two at your table. Invite the neighbor whose yard sign you want to kick, the world-traveling couple with no kids, the work colleague you wish you knew better, the family with the new baby, the vegan friend you're a little afraid to cook for. Make my risotto. And, please, let me know that you did it.

Basic Risotto, adapted from an old Martha Stewart Living recipe

I did not enter adulthood knowing how to cook many things, and Jason patiently lived through me teaching myself by trial and error in the early days of our marriage. This was one of the first "fancy" things I learned, and I remember how intimidating it first seemed, and how carefully I measured everything the first few times. I know the basic proportions of this recipe by heart now, and I adapt it freely: asparagus and lemon stirred in at the end in the spring; fresh corn, tomatoes, and basil in the summer; and butternut squash, thyme, and maybe a sprinkle of truffle salt in the fall. But the basic bones of it are easy, and it stands alone with nothing mixed in. Last night, to keep it vegan, I used vegetable stock and passed the finishing butter and Parmesan on the side, for the non-vegan among us. The key to the creaminess is the Arborio rice, which is a must.

  • 2-3 T. olive oil
  • 1-2 cloves garlic or shallots, minced
  • 1 c. Arborio rice
  • ¼ c. white wine
  • 5-6 c. chicken stock or vegetable stock, warmed
  • 2-3 T. butter, for finishing (optional)
  • fresh-grated Parmesan, for finishing (optional)

Pour the stock into a large stockpot and simmer over low heat to warm. In a large, wide pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic for a minute, being careful not to burn. Add the rice and saute, stirring constantly, until it makes a clicking sound like glass beads, 3-4 minutes. Add the wine and stir until evaporated. Begin adding the warm stock ¾ C. or so at a time, keeping the rice nicely simmering and never dry or submerged. Keep adding the stock and stirring over medium-low heat until the stock is gone and the rice tastes done, with just a bit of firmness at its core. (This will take 30-40 minutes. Have a glass of wine.) Remove from the heat and stir in butter and Parmesan, if using, or any other seasonal mix-ins. Serve immediately.



A Good Cook Knows . . .

I'm a little late to the party, but I don't want to ignore what seemed like a week or two of intense scrutiny geared toward family dinner in the national media. First there was a much-shared article on Slate called "Let's Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner" by Amanda Marcotte, a writer who I almost never agree with anyway but especially didn't see eye-to-eye with this time. Then the New York Times Magazine came out with its annual Food Issue, and Virginia Heffernan offered the world her snarky insecurity in "What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?"

For sure, we've all been there: five o' clock, staring into an empty fridge, with a kid underfoot asking what's for dinner tonight -- so I identify with Heffernan's struggle, and I bet there aren't many adults who don't. Some nights I fantasize about time-traveling back to my 1996 dorm room and making "dinner" out of a bag of microwave popcorn and some Twizzlers. Marcotte has some fair points in her article, too, namely that, especially for lower-income women, working mothers, and single parents, getting healthy food on the table is a legitimate struggle. 

What both articles seem to argue is that family dinner is a burden, not a joy, and it's one that falls disproportionately on the female adult in the family. Let's assume that's true. If it is, I'd argue that the way forward is not by publishing diatribes making fun of cookbook authors who are sincerely trying to make family dinner easier and more accessible for everyone. It's not wishing aloud, as Heffernan does, for a magical future where food is unnecessary and we just eat something a robot or a 3-D printer has conjured up for our dietary needs. It's not just to list all the unjust and unfortunate ways that family cooking is difficult for certain populations. The need to eat is not going to go away, and so the way forward, ironically, is more family dinner. 

Mark Bittman, cookbook author and advocate of healthy, omnivorous eating, says the goal should be "to get people to see cooking as a joy" instead of a burden. How do we do that? Practice. Involving the kids. Lowering expectations. Sharing the burden with your spouse. Acknowledging that families need to eat, just like families need clean clothes. The solution is not to eliminate family dinner, but to find a way to get everyone to pitch in, just the way we start expecting our girls to pitch in with their laundry once they hit first grade. 

Both articles also make the mistake of completely ignoring the intangible moments that happen around the table, no matter what you're eating. Listen, it's not all apple tarts and fancied-up Brussels sprouts at our table; some nights, it's scrambled eggs, leftover slices of the ugliest pumpkin bread ever, and fresh fruit. (That's protein, grains, vegetable, and fruit, right?) The important things are one, that everyone goes to bed having eaten a good-enough meal, and two, that our family took twenty minutes to connect at the end of a busy day.

When our girls were younger, those twenty minutes were pretty fraught, and there wasn't much meaningful conversation at all. Now that they're older, though, those twenty minutes are the basis for lots of spontaneous conversations that wouldn't otherwise happen. I get to share the fun facts I learned about the Grand River at my Leadership Grand Rapids day session, Annie tells a long story about her field trip to Lake Michigan, Jason asks Jemma about her soccer practice drills. Last night we actually attempted to conduct the entire dinner in Spanish, and we muddled through until Jason, who speaks very poor French, called it off ten minutes into the meal (but not before we'd all learned that chicken = pollo).

At the end of the day, Marcotte and Heffernan are right (family dinner does get romanticized, it is a burden that falls largely on women, it is difficult for low-income families to access healthy food), but they're only partly right. Their articles didn't go far enough, because they didn't really offer any solutions. I think the solution is this: Get in the kitchen more, not less. Get your kids and spouse in there too. Get better at whipping up a good-enough dinner (protein, grain, fruit and vegetable) because the simple truth is, we all have to eat. Get better at recognizing the value of those twenty minutes around the table together with your family. And get some inspiration, maybe, from those very cookbooks Heffernan disdains, Dinner: A Love Story being one of the best.

The pork, before we shredded it.

The pork, before we shredded it.

Dinner: A Love Story's Pork Ragu

On Sunday, we made this for only the second time ever. The first time we made it, last winter, it was for another Sunday supper with a different family, whose son loved it so much that we've now come to refer to it as "Rieden's Pork." This week, we gathered around the table with an adorable family of five who we didn't know that well before. The kids were playing so well upstairs and the adults were drinking wine in the kitchen for so long that we may have overcooked the pork just a little; it was not as saucy as we remembered. But no matter: Our conversation around the table ranged from how our parents met to piano recitals, from Napa wine to Rubik's cubes, and it just proved the quote hanging in our dining room. "A good cook knows that it's not what is on the table that matters, it's what is in the chairs." 

3-pound boneless pork shoulder roast
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small pat butter
1 large can whole tomatoes, with juice
1 cup red wine
5 sprigs fresh thyme
5 sprigs fresh oregano
Freshly grated Parmesean

Preheat oven to 325°F. Liberally salt and pepper the pork roast. Add olive oil and butter to large Dutch oven and heat over medium-high until butter melts, but does not burn. Add pork roast to pan and brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes in all.

Add the onion and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, wine, thyme, and oregano and bring to a boil. Cover, and put in oven. Braise for 3-4 hours, turning every hour or so. Add more liquid (water, wine, or tomato sauce) if needed. (The liquid should come to about 1/3 of the way up the pork.) Meat is done when it’s practically falling apart. Put on a cutting board and pull it apart with two forks, then add back to pot and stir. Cook 1 to 2 pounds pasta according to package directions. When it’s is ready, put into individual bowls and top with ragu and lots of Parm.


I won't lie: we're feeling downright heroic about the fact that we hosted our seventh Sunday supper in a row last night. We had pork chops, roasted butternut squash with sage, a big fall salad, mashed potatoes, and the applesauce made a return. There was Ichabod and red wine and cider, and there was great conversation -- first date stories, babies-being-born stories, and a round of "Where would you want to live if you didn't live here?" -- all the staples of a memorable fall dinner with nine people squished around our table. There was pumpkin cake for dessert.

As our friends were getting ready to leave, one of them asked, "So, how's this all going?" She waved her hand around to indicate that by "this," she meant all the hosting, all the Sunday supper-ing, the cleaning and the clean-up and counter full of dishes it entailed. "Not that you're going to say it's not going well while we're right here, in your house," she laughed.

I paused for a second, wanting to be honest and kind. "It's good," I said simply. "We're never sorry we did it after we close the door." And that's true. As Jason and I finished the dishes last night, he said how glad he was that we were doing this, how it was hard and worth it at the same time.

Since we started this little project, I've had so many people reach out and say they do this, or they wish they did this, or they used to do this growing up. One friend remembers 60 Minutes at her aunt's house each Sunday night; a neighbor told me about the particular way his grandfather expected the table to be set; another friend calls from states away to tell me about the first time she let a neighbor into her messy house. One person told me she was inspired to host her parents after a football game and try cooking something new. There are lots of you, I think, who feel the tug to work more of this "connection around the table" stuff into your life, which is great. I love it. I want to hear about it when you do.

But there are surely some of you who would rather impale yourself on a brush (that's a gratuitous Marcel the Shell reference, by the way) before undertaking this kind of weekly cooking and hosting, and I get that too. Maybe cooking is not your thing. Maybe hosting is not your thing. Totally understandable. But listen: I think, no matter what we do, we need to give ourselves permission to stop, be lazy, and do something to nourish our souls at least once a week. Maybe that's Friday Night Meatballs, maybe it's your long Saturday morning run, maybe it's your standing Thursday night wine with the neighbor girls, maybe it's your yoga class, maybe it's a few hours on a Sunday morning to paint or dance or hike or play the guitar or read. Maybe it's church, and maybe it's not.

I have a friend on Twitter who I've only met once. She and I found ourselves (with our families) at the same small resort on the far side of Jamaica one winter, and over the course of a week in the sunshine we talked books and motherhood, among other things. Now we're both raising our girls states away from each other, connected only by the Twitterverse, where we mostly still talk books and motherhood. We had this exchange a few days ago after she posted about an award-winning book she was having trouble slogging through:

If you're a rule-follower in life, you probably know this feeling. Even if you don't read much, surely you have a sense that there is work you "should" be doing, a commitment you "should" be fulfilling, a project or to-do list you "should" be tackling. If you've ever read a book to the end even though you've disliked it all along, you're my people. 

Here's one thing I've learned after seven consecutive Sundays of supper: the prep work for hosting Sunday supper will expand to use up exactly the amount of available time before our guest arrive. Hasn't this always been true? If you have one hour, you get the food going and the table set, which is all that really matters. If you have two hours, you might at least clean the bathrooms and light some candles. And if you have three hours, you suddenly find yourself dusting, cleaning out the kitchen junk drawer, sweeping the front steps, watering window boxes, crafting napkin rings from pine cones, and creating a playlist. 

Life is like this too. Unless you have a strict 40-hour work week and absolutely no electronic tether to after-hours issues, the work, whatever it may be (parenting, photography, teaching, managing, building, lawyering) will expand to use up exactly the amount of life you allow it to. Because the work can never really be done. There's always one more thing to research, one more email to send, one more list to make.

So this is me, giving you permission to stop, both in person and on Twitter. I don't care if it's to gather around the table to eat food with people you love, to take a nap, or to set out on your road bike with thirty miles ahead of you. Whatever it is, and I'm paraphrasing Mary Oliver here, let yourself do what you love -- not because it's productive, not because you're checking it off your to-do list, but simply because you've done enough for now. Hard? Yes. But also worth it. (Our cat, Pickle, agrees.)

Tao Te Ching:

If a country is governed wisely . . .

People enjoy their food,

Take pleasure in being with their families,

Spend weekends in their gardens,

Delight in the doings of the neighborhood. 

Old-Fashioned Conversation + New-Fashioned Brussels Sprouts

In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recommends that writers who are struggling with writer's block write about their school lunches. So let's do that today, but let's write about after-church coffee instead.

After-church coffee is, I think, possibly a very West Michigan thing. My neighbor and I were talking on her front porch a week or two ago, and we agreed it may be a strange, lovely little tradition that's particular to our little corner of the world. (Are we wrong? If you're from elsewhere, jump in the comments and let me know!) But here's how it went for me, circa the 1980s in West Michigan.

After church, we'd head over to my grandparents' house -- not for dinner, but just for the hour or so between church and going home to eat whatever my mom had in the oven already. We'd walk right in, with aunts and uncles and cousins (and possibly a dog or two) right behind us. My grandparents would still be at church, but they'd be home soon, and the coffee (weak, black) would already be waiting in the carafe in the kitchen. Shoes off at the doorway, coats in the closet, and we'd gather around the dining room table in no order and with no agenda. Someone would pour coffee for the grown-ups, and my brother and I would get iced tea from a brown Tupperware pitcher in the fridge. 

There was always a little food, but not so much as to spoil our dinner: Ritz crackers with Schuler's bar cheese; maybe a little plate of Pecan Sandies or Fudge Stripes; some weeks my mom might have baked something to bring along and share. 

And for just an hour or so, we'd sit and talk. Current events, school projects, work, fishing stories, vacation photos, neighborhood dramas, weekend adventures -- nothing, really, and everything was said around that table. I remember holding my cousin as a baby around that table, and I remember bringing Jason to Sunday coffee for the first time, and I remember missing it when we moved away. But I don't really remember the details of any conversations, which is OK, because it's not the conversations but the feeling of belonging that's important. Before Facebook, before email, before texting, Sunday coffee was my family's in-person connection time. It still is, actually, and though we're a little too far away to make it a weekly event, we still pop in from time to time, and my grandpa is still making the coffee and setting out the crackers.

In the book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair, the author writes:

My friend Martha remembers when she was young and visits with her grandparents and extended family included cooking together, eating together, and relaxing after the meal. In the migration from kitchen to dinner table to family room, the intergenerational conversation was continuous. The young cousins might convene a board game or maybe watch a TV show together, but family conversation wove through it all.

“We used to sit around with my aunts and my uncles and they would just talk about anything,” she says. “There was no point to it, it just went, but it had this great sort of humanizing, literary impact on you.”

The contrast between that rich conversational flow and the relatively shallow, staccato one that dominates her own household today is dramatic – and discouraging, she says. Absent the texture and cadence of old-fashioned family conversations, she believes her children are growing up in “an extremely isolated little bubble” of digital dialogue, a kind of conversational Muzak that fills the space, mimicking style but lacking substance.

Reclaiming Sunday Supper, for me, is about trying to recapture a little bit of that kind of old-fashioned conversation (is meandering, in-person conversation truly old-fashioned?) with our own kids. Who doesn't want more "rich conversational flow" that has "this great sort of humanizing, literary impact on you"? Over the course of one meal -- or even one month of meals -- that might be a little too ambitious, but woven into the Sunday suppers and our regular weeknight dinners, I think it may be possible.

My in-laws came to eat with us on Sunday. They were freshly back from a big trip, and they'd brought pretty glass jewelry and lovely French macaroons, and we wanted the girls to hear about their travels. But one girl (who shall remain nameless) spent the majority of the meal squatting sideways on her chair like a frog, and shoved so much naan in her mouth at once that some actually fell out on the floor. It was definitely another reminder that these meals are as much about modeling good manners as they are about learning to have meaningful conversations. It was a reminder that our family needs more practice (and more patience) around the table.

After I was done shooting looks across the table, we heard some good travel stories, and we saw some beautiful travel photos, and the girls remembered to chew with their mouths closed and told stories about school projects, soccer games, and missing teeth. And by the time we were eating our apple crisp with Jeni's Salty Caramel ice cream (I'm beginning to suspect I may have dreamed up this whole Reclaiming Sunday Supper project as an excuse to bake delicious and different apple desserts every week this fall), we had, I think, captured that elusive, after-church-coffee feeling. There were no Ritz crackers, no Schuler's bar cheese, but there were three generations sitting around the table, and there were Brussels sprouts, which, in the tradition of children everywhere, the girls refused to eat.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta and Balsamic

These are not your grandmothers' Brussels sprouts -- or, at least, they aren't my grandmother's. I think Brussels sprouts are so universally hated because so many of us grew up eating ones that had been boiled to death and under seasoned. These are crisp, especially when a few leaves break off and toast individually, and they're full of flavor. They also play nicely with any other root vegetables you have on hand (carrots are especially good), and can be served over pureed butternut squash if you're feeling extra-fancy.

  • 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved, or any combination of sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 4 oz. diced pancetta
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

reheat oven to 425. Toss Brussels sprouts/vegetables with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and arrange on a sheet pan. Scatter diced pancetta over vegetables and roast, flipping vegetables occasionally with a spatula, until crisp and caramelized, about 20-25 minutes. Serve immediately, with balsamic vinegar alongside.

On Imperfection and Messy Houses

Today I'm going to show you a picture of my laundry room. 

I know. And you know what's even worse? It looked like that last Sunday, when we had people over. (!)

Now, maybe your laundry room looks like this. Maybe you look at this pile of soccer jerseys and beach towels and stray gift bags and one lone sleeping bag still waiting to be put away and you don't blink an eye. If so, clearly you weren't raised by the Joyless Dutch, which is my mostly affectionate term for the particular brand of hard-working, God-fearing, tithing, teetotaling farm stock from which I descend.

Now, my mom, if she's reading this, has one million good qualities, some of which I've always appreciated and some of which I continue to recognize, one day at a time, as I move further through this parenting journey. I recently gave thanks, for example, that she and my dad never pressured my brother and me to do anything but our best. Lose a game? "Did you do your best? That's all you can do." Do poorly on a math test? "Well, you did your best, and that's what counts." They tempered this kind of calm reaction to mistakes or failure with an unwavering expectation that we would, indeed, put in the time and practice to achieve our best -- but it was always the effort, not the outcome, that was important. They also took us on interesting road trips, filled the house with books and games, welcomed our friends, drove us to a million activities, made time for our family, worked hard to provide all of our needs and many of our wants, and have done a top-notch job of supporting us as we've grown more independent and of respecting us as adults.

But my mom, if she's reading this, is quietly appalled about my laundry room. That's because, in my whole extended family, which is 100 percent Dutch, rule number one is Take Care of Your Stuff. I can't remember a single time I've set foot in the home of anyone in my extended family when their laundry room looked like this. Go to my uncle's house, and the garage floor is so clean you could eat off it. Go to my mom's and she's probably vacuuming when you walk in the door while my dad waxes the car in the driveway. My entire life, it's been drilled into me that you work first, play later. (And if the "play later" never comes? Well, that's life.)

That work ethic? That commitment to excellence, punctuality, responsible behavior, organization, and follow-through? Makes them awesome citizens, great neighbors, consistent parents, dedicated employees, and the kinds of loyal friends who show up. But it might also, just possibly, create tiny issues around perfection that can prevent people from living big, juicy, creative lives. It might create the kind of narrative in your head that says you can have people over for dinner only when the house is spotless. It might subtly imply that the state of your things says a lot about the state of your life. It might make you focus so much on cleaning the laundry room and washing the car that you forget to invite people into your life to spend time with you just as you are. 

I struggled for this for a long, long time. We'll have people come stay when we get a new couch, I'd think, back when we lived in a tiny apartment in Ann Arbor full of hand-me-down furniture. We'll invite the new neighbors over after the holidays, when life isn't so crazy, I'd say. And there's always been, If we host that here, I'll have to spend the whole day before cleaning. And sometimes life really is too crazy and messy to add one more expectation to your to-do list. But it's just this sort of thinking that causes us to give up opportunities for joy and connection, that prevents us from being vulnerable enough to invite people into our lives -- and homes -- just as we are.

Brene Brown's research and writing have helped me to think differently about this, as has St. Anne (my term for Anne Lamott, who is still very much with us and still very much not-Catholic, but still as deserving as anyone, in my book, of sainthood), as has blogger Swistle, who writes with her unique brand of wry, self-deprecating insight about pretty much everything, including how she finally gathered the courage to host some new friends in her messy house. In her list of reasons why she went for it, she says this:

Another reason is that I heard one woman saying she wasn’t going to host because her house was too messy. I thought about the houses where we’d met so far, and all were very, very clean, and uncluttered, and nicely decorated. It makes sense that “nicely-taken-care-of house” and “likes to host” would often go together; and I can identify with the feeling that my house isn’t nice enough to host. But…when the only people who host are the people with clean and nicely-decorated houses, that not only keeps a certain cycle going, it makes the cycle much worse over time. Meanwhile, when I go to a house that ISN’T clean and nicely-decorated, I feel RELIEF and INCREASED AFFECTION: I think, “Whew, I don’t have to worry about my house with her!” My mom, who keeps a clean and nicely-decorated house, confirms that she feels that same relief at the sight of someone else’s messy home.

Yes! Relief! And then there's this, too: "I’d noticed that after I’d been to someone’s house, I felt like I knew that person more than I did after seeing her at other people’s houses."

And that's the crux of it. You don't technically have to invite people into your home in order to foster connection. You can meet at the park with your kids, join a running group, promise to meet at a yoga class, have drinks at a bar or conversations on the sidelines. But there is something a little magical about letting people into your space (in all its imperfection!) that deepens the relationship like nothing else quite can. I think it's why little kids so desperately want to have their little friends over to "see my room," and why there's something so special about family and friends gathered around a fire in the living room or sharing a meal at the table. 

I did (sort of) clean up the laundry room on Monday. (My mom breathes a sigh of relief.) But it'll surely get that way again, much as I attempt to keep up with vacuuming the cat hair and folding the towels. The good news is, when people come over on Sunday, I can just close the door to the laundry room. The good news is, we're not letting our imperfect house stop us from spending time with the people we love.


On Gratitude and Apple Tarts

It's the last day of September, something that makes me both happy and sad. A part of me is desperately sorry to see this month go; it's the month of beautiful, just-right Michigan weather, it's the month when our family of four celebrates three birthdays, it's a month of fresh starts and new beginnings, and I know that turning this particular page on the calendar means that colder, darker days are ahead.

At the same time, a part of me is breathing a sigh of relief. September (along with December and May), for parents of school-aged children, at least, seems to have become a month of absolute insanity when it comes to the family schedule. Fall sports begin, there's a back-to-school curriculum night for each grade level, and every activity that was put on hold during the lazy days of summer kicks off again. Between the standard busyness of back to school and the birthday celebrations, I've barely had a moment to catch my breath.

And we started Sunday suppers. A month into this "experiment in rest and connection," here's what I can say. Our dishwasher has never been working harder. The cloth napkins we received for our wedding, which previously sat unused in a drawer in the dining room, have finally seen the light of day. The stack of books on my side of the bed has changed from current fiction to Wayne Muller's Sabbath, Catherine Steiner-Adair's The Big Disconnect, and Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach (I'm dog-earing a lot of pages, and I'll share some of the best tidbits here eventually). Launching this project has launched dozens of new conversations, both in person and online, about how we're living and what we're choosing, and that's been so fun to see. I've peeled several pounds of apples, and the girls have gotten very good at setting the table.

Looking back on a month of Reclaiming Sunday Supper, it's a mixed bag. When it comes to rest and connection, we're failing spectacularly on the former and succeeding happily on the latter. We've had so many fantastic moments with family and friends around our table this September, and they're moments I know we wouldn't have had if we weren't being so intentional about making time for these Sunday meals. I read a blog post by Shauna Niequist that hit me in the gut called "Why It Doesn't Matter How You Feel About Your Friends" and I'm more than a little proud that we're actually turning our warm feelings toward our nearest and dearest into actual, scheduled time together. I'm even more proud that we've done it in spite of the craziness that is the month of September.

But as far as rest, as far as cultivating a space for being still and knowing, as far as creating traditions for our family that allow us to spend Sunday being creative and lazy, we're not even coming close. In fact, these Sunday suppers have made our weekends feel even more scheduled than usual, and when we close the door behind our guests and load the dishwasher on Sunday evenings as the sky gets dark, I feel several things (satisfied, loved, grateful), but "rested" is not one of them. I imagine -- I hope! -- that there will be Sundays ahead this winter when we are able to make more space for that quiet, but I am beginning to suspect there are hard choices to be made (saying no to those birthday parties and hours of errand-running, weighing the value of that soccer game against the value of two or three hours of spreading out in the living room with a mess of crayons and Legos) if our family is truly serious about finding more rest.

For now, I'm taking a minute to be truly grateful for the journey we're on and the small moments of connection we've enjoyed so far. I read a study last year (can't remember where or which one) that talked about the many reasons it's important to practice gratitude regularly with young children, so we commandeered a neglected journal of Annie's and turned it into our Sunday night gratitude journal. One of the girls is usually in charge of recording the little things we're thankful for after we've finished eating, and it's fun to look back to last winter and see "our whole family being on the chairlift together" or last spring and see "daffodils coming up in the front yard" on the weekly lists. We have one child who's naturally inclined to see the good in the world and another who needs a little nudge (ahem), and we've noticed a definite uptick in all our attitudes when we wrap up the weekend by taking the time to list the good things, one of which is this apple tart we served Sunday night. 

So on the last day of September, I'm grateful for good friends around our backyard table, for silly little girls writing in our journal, for pumpkin beer, for sunny fall days, for Reclaiming Sunday Supper, and for Smitten Kitchen, who pretty much never steers you wrong.

Apple Tart with Salted Caramel, adapted (barely) from Smitten Kitchen

Tart base

  • 14-ounce package puff pastry, defrosted 
  • 3 large or 4 medium apples
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cold, cut into small bits

Salted caramel glaze

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt 
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • dash of cinnamon, to taste (optional)

Heat your oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper. 

Lightly flour your counter and lay out your pastry. Flour the top and gently roll it until it fits inside your baking sheet, and transfer it there. You want to just stretch it out a bit in every direction; don't worry too much about the exact size.

Peel, core, and stem the apples. Slice the apples halves crosswise as thinly as you can with a knife, or to about 1/16-inch thickness with a mandoline. Leaving a 1/2-inch border, fan the apples around the tart in slightly overlapping concentric rectangles — each apple should overlap the one before so that only about 3/4-inch of the previous apple will be visible — until you reach the middle. Sprinkle the apples evenly with the first two tablespoons of sugar then dot with the tablespoon of butter.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the edges of the tart are brown and the edges of the apples begin to take on some color. If you sliced your apples by hand and they were on the thicker side, you might need a little more baking time to cook them through. If your puffed pastry bubbles dramatically in any place during the baking time, simply poke it with a knife or skewer so that it deflates. 

Meanwhile, about 20 minutes into the baking time, make your glaze. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt your last 1/4 cup sugar; this will take about 3 minutes. Cook the liquefied sugar to a nice copper color, another minute or so, being very careful not to burn it. Off the heat, add the sea salt and butter and stir until the butter melts and is incorporated. Add the heavy cream and return to the stove over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until you have a lovely, bronzed caramel syrup, just another minute or two. Stir in the cinnamon, if using. Set aside until needed. You may need to briefly rewarm it to thin the caramel before brushing it over the tart.

After the tart has baked, transfer it to a cooling rack, but leave the oven on. Using very short, gentle strokes, and brushing in the direction that the apples fan to mess up their design as little as possible, brush the entire tart, including the exposed pastry, with the salted caramel glaze. 

Return the apple tart to the oven for 5 more minutes, until the caramel glaze bubbles. Let tart cool completely before cutting. Makes 9-12 servings, depending on how large you cut the slices. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sabbath

The teacher in me loves Venn diagrams, and I sketched out a quick one today. 

If you think of the left circle as "Reclaiming Sunday" and the right circle as "Sunday Supper," you can see the shaded, starred area is where the two ideas overlap, and that's where I hope to focus most of my writing: on that sweet spot in the middle, where we talk about food and recipes and the way they're so connected to hospitality and rest. But sometimes I'll want to zero in on one circle and ignore the other, and that's what I'm thinking about today.

What, in 2014, is Sabbath? When I talk about "reclaiming Sunday," what do I really mean? Does a Sabbath - a period of rest - really need to be a whole day long? Does it need to happen on a Sunday? Does it need to be religious or Christian in nature?

The answer to those last three questions, I think, is no. Sabbath doesn't need to last an entire day, doesn't need to happen on a Sunday, and doesn't need to be religious in nature. But historically, the answer to those last three questions has been yes, and that's changed in such a short period of time that I think it's worth comparing the Sabbath of my grandmother's mid-life to the Sunday of today.

I lost both my grandmothers this past year. The eldest one, my dad's mom, was 99 when she died. Her life was very little like mine: she grew up on a farm, went to school in a one-room school house and only through 8th grade, she had five children, and she lived with her family above the grocery store my grandpa ran. On the Sundays of his childhood in the 1950s, my dad remembers church, a family meal, and then church again at night. That was all. He remembers not being allowed to swim, bike, clean, play, or do anything at all except those three things. He remembers my grandmother trying to make most of the Sunday meals ahead on Saturday, so she'd just need to turn on the oven and cook what she had already prepared. 

Fast forward to my childhood in the 1980s. I remember Sundays that featured church, coffee at my grandparents', a big noon meal, naps, playing in the neighborhood and maybe some homework, and that's about it. My family didn't generally go shopping, go out to eat, or run errands, and that's largely because stores and restaurants weren't open on Sundays, but it's also because my parents didn't like the idea of supporting a culture where others had to work on Sunday. Neighbors who washed their cars and mowed their lawns on Sunday were frowned upon, and the county in which I grew up didn't sell alcohol on Sundays. We had a pool, though, and would definitely use it in the summer, and we'd ride our bikes and occasionally go to the beach for the afternoon in the summer, and my brother and dad would likely play basketball in the driveway or watch sports on TV. Throughout childhood, I played a little soccer and my brother played basketball, but I never remember either of us having Sunday games.

This morning, I found myself standing on a soccer field at 9:00 a.m. with a birthday party and a Costco trip on the schedule for the afternoon. Later, Jason mowed the lawn while I cleaned the bathrooms and did a load of laundry. The girls rode their bikes around the block and hula-hooped in the front yard. In just two generations, Sundays have become totally unrecognizable as a day of the week that used to be set apart for rest. Many people we know do go to church, but it seems that even those families have to squeeze church in among several other commitments in their Sunday: kids' sports, training for their own sporting event, birthday parties, grocery shopping, running errands, cleaning, piano lessons, social events. I get work emails all weekend long, and I know I'm not the only one. Many of our friends who travel for business have begun flying out on Sunday afternoon in order to be at their destination as expected for the 8:00 a.m. meeting on Monday morning. 

So over a period of 60 years, give or take, a day of the week that, in the Christian tradition at least, had been set aside for rest and worship for hundreds of years, has become just another one of seven weekdays, nearly as busy as the other six. And here's what I wonder: Are we OK with this? Or are we not OK with this, but we don't think we have a choice? 

Because here's the thing. I don't especially want to go back to the Sundays of the 1950s; those days of enforced church and joyless rest sound pretty grim. And having actual laws in place that forbid businesses from being open on Sundays seems like a pretty blatant flaunting of the separation of church and state. (Let's not even talk about shunning the neighbors who wash their cars and mow their lawns.) I don't presume that most of the residents of my community, my state, or my country share my faith or should have to follow any sort of religious rules. But no matter your religion or total lack thereof, don't we all want a day to just shut it down? To hang around the house in elastic waistband pants, watch mindless television, cook good food, read, hike, play? To let go of the need to be productive?

When I think about what's changed in the last few decades (and what might have caused our culture's definition of Sunday to change), a few things come to mind: more women entered the workforce, fewer people attend church, more people live in cities instead of on farms, and technology has completed changed the way we work. But I was in Paris and Vienna last summer, and those world-class European cities still close their restaurants and stores on Sundays in spite of the fact that hardly anyone in Europe cares about organized religion and the majority of women work. People sit in cafes, read the paper, walk along the Seine, play with their kids in the park -- and it's not because they're required by a priest or shamed by their mothers or neighbors. It's because they value the time away from work and school. I'm not sure why, as Americans in 2014, the voices calling for sanity in scheduling seem few and far between. I'm not sure why we aren't taking a good hard look at what we've given up since we've let Sunday become just another day of the week. I'm not sure what it's costing our kids, our health, our creativity, our relationships. But I'm curious.

Here's what I know for sure. My grandmother would never have found herself standing on a soccer field at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. 

Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I’m wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it.
— Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Key Ingredient: Radical Empathy

I have this friend -- let's call her Martha, as in Martha Stewart -- who I've known forever. And when I go to her house, it always looks like it's ready to be shot for a fancy design magazine: immaculate kitchen counters, lovely candle burning, bookshelves styled just so, and an honest-to-goodness glass dome with homemade cookies inside just sitting on her kitchen island. When she hosts us for dinner, she offers an individually mixed cocktail, followed by an interesting salad, followed by a thoughtfully planned and wonderfully executed meal, somehow healthy and indulgent at the same time, and she does it with grace. She's the kind of person who can whip up a meal from scratch while managing a few kids underfoot and still holding up her end of the conversation, who will send you home with some sort of artfully tied favor that you didn't even know you wanted but you love at first sight. When you leave her house, you feel spoiled, nourished, taken care of. 

I have this other friend -- let's call her Kristen, as in Kristen Wiig -- who I've known for a few years. And when I go to her house, the kitchen is charming and tiny, with 1930s cabinets and a whole wall covered with kids' artwork and happy photos. When she hosts us for dinner (or, more likely, an afternoon of football-watching), there's a mishmash of beer in the fridge and a Bloody Mary bar where you help yourself. She offers a veggie tray she bought at the grocery store and you pile take-out pizza onto paper plates before you settle into comfortable couches in the family room. She's the kind of person who has you in stitches half the afternoon, who will bring you a second beer while showing you her favorite SNL skit on YouTube and offering to loan you a necklace for that work thing you have next week, who will send you home with a foil-wrapped plate of leftover pizza for lunch tomorrow. When you leave her house, you feel lighter, relaxed, taken care of.

I was thinking about both these friends last Sunday as I stood in the kitchen (after church, after the soccer game), pounding chicken breasts thin. See, I was making Martha's chicken for Kirsten's family, who was coming over for Sunday supper. The recipe is one that Martha made for me at her house for one of our annual college girlfriend weekends, and, true to form, she whipped it up while the rest of us were standing around the kitchen, drinking wine and being generally unhelpful. It's the kind of dish that seems fancy but really isn't hard to make, and all of us immediately loved it and wanted the recipe, which Martha subsequently printed out on adorable card stock and mailed to each of us.

In the introduction to the book Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (Go read it. Immediately. Unless you're easily offended by the f-word.), writer Steve Almond says this about Strayed's wide appeal as Dear Sugar, the advice columnist name she'd been hiding behind for some time:

I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from a deep engagement with our internal lives — those fountains of inconvenient feeling — and toward the frantic enticements of what our friends in the Greed Business call the Free Market.

We're hurtling through time and space and information faster and faster, seeking that network connection. But at the same time we're falling away from our families and our neighbors and ourselves. We ego-surf and update our status and brush up on which celebrities are ruining themselves, and how. But the cure won't stick.

The cure, Almond goes on to say, is Strayed's "radical empathy," the feeling that she gives to those who write in with their difficult situations that, with time or patience or a bit of perspective, things are going to be OK. And, having read the book a few times myself and lent it to several people, I think the way Strayed does it is by opening up her own stories and imperfections to the advice seeker. Instead of maintaining a professional distance from the situation, she shares the messy past of her own life. She says, I went through something like that too, and here's how I got through it. She says, I see you, and you're normal, and you can do this. She writes to these people as though she's talking to them across her kitchen table. She makes them feel taken care of.

So Almond is right, I think, that this kind of connection and radical empathy is the cure to the loneliness that's lurking beneath the fast-paced lives we're living. And it's the reason that, given the choice between spending the evening having a meal with Martha or Kristen, I would happily choose either. It's not about the food, really, or the cleanliness of the kitchen or whether or not the dessert is homemade. It's about spending time with the people who love you best, who welcome you into their homes, and who send you back out into the world again feeling cared for. Nourished. Understood. It's about offering people radical empathy along with whatever you're having for dinner, whether it's take-out pizza or hand-pounded chicken.

To serve eight, I doubled the recipe, swapped Parmesan for Asiago, and served the chicken over a big platter of fettuccine, with the sage sauce on the side.

Chicken with Asiago, Prosciutto, and Sage

  • 4 small skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pounded to 1/4-inch thickness
  • all-purpose flour
  • 6 T butter, divided
  • 1/2 c. finely grated Asiago cheese
  • 8 thin slices prosciutto, folded over crosswise
  • 2/3 c. dry white wine
  • 2 t. minced fresh sage
  • 4 whole sage leaves for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Coat both sides with flour, shaking off excess. Melt 4 T. butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breasts and sauté until brown, turning once, about 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper; reserve skillet. Sprinkle 2 T. cheese over each chicken breast. Top each with 2 prosciutto slices. Bake until chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, add wine, minced sage, and 2 T. butter to skillet. Stir, scraping up browned bits, and boil until sauce is reduced to 1/3 cup, about 4 minutes.

Transfer chicken to platter. Top each with sage leave, drizzle pan sauce over, and serve.

Game of the Week: Soccer vs. Sunday Supper

I knew on some level when we started this project that we'd have to contend with the fall soccer schedule. And I know we're not alone; among my friends and neighbors, there aren't many who aren't juggling weekend hockey games, golf matches, and swim meets. 

The first two weekends were easy, though: first, Labor Day weekend, with a Sunday dune hike and grilling out after with my brother- and sister-in-law's foursome; then, family and friends over to celebrate September birthdays with a BLT bar and Smitten Kitchen brownie mosaic cheesecake. No soccer games equaled no chaos.

Last weekend, though, we ran up against our first challenge. In a 24-hour period, we had a birthday sleepover, church, and a Sunday afternoon soccer game an hour away from home. Were it not for Reclaiming Sunday Supper, I guarantee that dinner would have been some leftovers scavenged from the fridge when we spilled back into the house at 6:00 p.m. And I guarantee our weekend would have ended with us feeling frazzled.

So instead of letting soccer derail our time around the table, we planned ahead and went old-school: a beef roast went into the crock pot before church, potatoes were peeled and soaked (and ready to be boiled and mashed) before the soccer match, vegetables were washed and trimmed (and ready to be roasted), and my mom's applesauce was cooling on the stove. Jemma set the table while Annie donned cleats and shin guards, and when we did finally pile back in the house at 6:00 p.m., we were just half an hour away from a cozy fall meal with good friends.

I have more thoughts on the way youth sports have crept into our Sundays and taken over our weekends, and it remains to be seen whether this little experiment of ours will eventually feel like one more thing to add to our schedule instead of one pocket of rest in our busy week. This Sunday, though, it was worth it. We ate beef and Brussels sprouts, talked travel and teaching, and reconnected with people we enjoy. We sat around the table as the light faded, bellies full and hearts happy, and four little girls played in the yard after until we absolutely had to call them in for bed. 

Sure, we were left with a pile of dishes. But the house still smelled of beef the next morning, and I think that's a victory.

My Mom's Applesauce

  • 1-2 MacIntosh apples per person
  • 1-2 t. cinnamon
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. water

Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples and pile them in a non-reactive pot. (They'll cook down by over half, so don't worry if it seems like a lot of apples.) Add the cinnamon and sugar, then splash about 1/4 c. of water over the top. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, over low heat until apples are desired consistency. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary. Serve warm.

Making Time

A few things happened in quick succession this summer and together, they get the credit for inspiring Reclaiming Sunday Supper.

1. There was a hilarious Facebook meme going around, which began, "I'm so West Michigan, I . . ." and had people filling in the blank with stories about back in the day, when you could ride your bike to the corner store for cheap candy -- and buy your mom's smokes with a note signed by her. Someone in my feed, who grew up here, moved away, and is now a local media professional, wrote, "I'm so West Michigan, I can remember when you got in trouble for washing your car and mowing your lawn on Sunday." It triggered predictably fascinating comments, with those who are new to town expressing curiosity and amusement that Sundays used to be so strict around here, and those who grew up here chiming in with their own sets of antiquated Sunday rules. 

2. Our family went to the cabin for a weekend, and I brought along Shauna Niequist's wonderful book, Bread and Wine, to re-read. We invited another family with two little girls to join us, and one morning, after I'd just read Shauna's chapter about House Church (a small group of exquisitely close friends who gathered weekly in each other's homes for meals and friendship), I started a conversation about it with our friends. Was Shauna's experience really true? (They knew her tangentially, and said indeed it was.) Was this kind of committed community even possible these days, with every family we know scheduled to the minute? After we did the dishes that morning, I dangled my toes in the Little Manistee River, and I wondered.

3. A couple of weeks later, the website I manage published a fun profile of a very successful local businesswoman. She's a savvy realtor, a mother, an active community member, and a triathlete. How, the writer asked, does she do it all? Simple, she replied; if it isn't in her calendar, it doesn't happen. She explained how she schedules her life very intentionally, prioritizing time for family, exercise, and travel, then fills in what's available with work. It's not the first time I'd heard this philosophy, but somehow this time everything clicked: the memories of childhood Sundays, with their rejoinder against work; the moving description of House Church, with its unique ability to nourish and support; and the reminder that it's the busiest people who get the most done because they're so intentional with their time.

"There is NO time" is a text I sent my sister-in-law at one point this summer, and it often seems that it's true. At one point last month, I woke up at 4 a.m., looking at the ceiling and worrying in advance about what had become an insanely complicated soccer carpool schedule. (I think it's safe to say the moment you cross over from "a parent with some kids who play some sports" to "a soccer mom" is when you have more than one color-coded Google Drive spreadsheet open on your laptop and you've spent the better part of a week trying to make sense of hundreds of texts and emails about camps, tournaments, practices, and game schedules. But that's neither here nor there.) 

Nonetheless, it's September, which is the best month of the year, if you ask me, to begin again. New school year, new schedules, fresh pencils and shoes, and a renewed commitment, after the haze of summer, to bring a little more order to life. To make time for what's important.

It's true; there is still "NO time" -- or, at least, no more than there was before. But our family has been largely having Sunday supper most weeks for the last year or so. We've cobbled together some little traditions around it (all the best traditions are cobbled together ones, no?), involving the lighting of a very ugly blue glass votive candle that one of the girls chose from TJ Maxx a couple years ago and the writing in a gratitude journal about things that we're thankful for on that particular week.

And since we're cooking anyway, we may as well get some people to come sit down and eat with us. Coming off the unscheduled chaos of late summer, when things tend to fall apart and I hardly knew which day it was, not much sounds better than carving out Sundays as a day for heading to church (or, let's be honest, probably the occasional kids' soccer game), coming home to change into elastic waistband pants, and spending the afternoon reading, watching football, hiking, or playing outside while something cooks slowly in the oven. We'll see.