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.