The Family Dinner Essay Contest: Winning Story

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A few weeks ago we sent out one of our bi-monthly E-Newsletters with a request for stories written by our readers on the theme of The Family Dinner. The contest was inspired by The Family Dinner cookbook by Laurie David, a book full of not just delicious recipes but also (and we think even more importantly) full of great reasons to sit down and enjoy a home cooked meal with loved ones. The winning story would receive a signed copy of the cookbook for their kitchen library!


We we're thrilled to receive a number of entries full of great stories–from fiction to memoir, some made us laugh, others made us teary and some inspired us to call our moms. So thanks to all you readers who entered for your inspired tales of how much dinner traditions can really mean. Here is the winning story!

Sunday Family Dinners by Courtney Gilbert

With more than a decade between the eldest and the youngest children in my family, growing up there were few things we held in common. On a regular day, there was only so much my older brothers could take hearing about my most recent boy band crush or school girl drama. Nor did I have much interest in their discussions of computers or the political matters that were beyond the understanding of a tween girl.

On Sundays though, an hour or two before sunset, a transformation occurred in our home. The long table in our kitchen, whose job day to day was to hold mail and unfinished homework, as well as be a quick pit stop for filling empty bellies, shifted into something much more. Dressed nicely with linen placemats and napkins, the long table became the setting for a family ritual that somehow, in an almost magical way, quieted the differences between us just enough so we could share a meal and get to know each other. 

My father at the head of the table was generally a serious man, but became the jovial story-teller for the evening on Sundays. With every juicy steak he served up there was a cheesy joke as its side. He would recount stories from his younger years, or sometimes those of our grandparents’. No matter what the story, there was always a punch line, which would generally draw an exasperated sigh from our mother, signaling that perhaps this story was somewhat exaggerated for comedic effect.

In perfect balance to his meaty steaks and cheery chatter, my mother served up her potatoes and salad along with a verbal newsletter of the comings and goings of family and friends. Birthdays, upcoming celebrations for new babies or marriages and recent accomplishments at jobs were all shared across the table, as well as the tastier tidbits of information that she was hearing through the grapevine. She had her children’s full attention this one night a week, so it was important she share the information with us now as to not risk hearing later, “Mom – you never told me cousin Johnny was getting married?!”

Sitting between our parents at either end of the table, my three older brothers and I would split time between our parents’ conversations and that of our own. I cannot even remember our specific conversations, whether it was music or sports or politics, but I know that we actually talked to each other, about something! And little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we became more than just siblings, we became friends–with each other and with our parents.

The phrase “creature of habit” could very well have been invented in our family. Sunday Family Dinner’s menu every week was (is) steak, potatoes and salad. On occasion and by request only, my father would grill up some fish or burgers along with the steak. But the steak, potatoes and salad always remained the principal of the meal. It was the consistency, something comforting you could count on each week, that brought us back home no matter what and made Sunday Family Dinners a success.

The four siblings are now split between two cities in two states, so Sunday Family Dinner goes to the town that Mom and Dad claim as home for the time. Over the years we’ve added spouses and nieces and nephews to the long table. My father repeats some of his stories from years ago and my mother finds herself forgetting which set of children she has already shared certain family updates with – do the Austin kids know this or was it the Fayetteville kids she told? But little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we continue to share our lives around a long table filled with simple good foods and friends.