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.