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.