Exit Thanksgiving with its celebration of family and friendships, headline hogging recipes and endless innovative advice for leftovers. Now begins the run-up to an even more anxiety provoking holiday, a mash up of idyllic gift giving, picture perfect family time and of course, more creative if not traditionally inspired, cooking.
The centrality of gathering around the table at holiday time is of course not limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Add Passover, Easter, Jewish New Year, Kwanza and other religious or secular holidays, and the list mushrooms. And though the feasting is legendary, so is the apprehension of family reunions, taxing travel logistics and general domestic stress that accompanies command performances.
For weeks, an under-celebrated ritual has been rolling around in my head: the Sunday Supper. It sounds — well — so simple and evocative and seductive. Upon further examination, while it appears to be a contemporary trend (might I say a foodie-millennial-trendy-reconnection to lost values) but it has very real and deep roots in several American family traditions.
The practice of a Sunday supper originated with families gathering after church for a full meal in England and Europe, countries with deep Christian heritage. Ask someone about his or her Sunday supper experience, and there is an immediate transformation of demeanor and I bet a sharp drop in blood pressure, as though one is instantly transported to a magical faraway place. I am jealous and enchanted as the Sunday dinners of my childhood were on the fly and consisted of “LO’s,” leftovers, the result of growing up in a traditional Jewish household, where both Friday night and Saturday lunch were with family. So I set about to ask friends and colleagues about their Sunday supper memories.
Diane Dilbert, of Scandinavian/Italian heritage, had Sunday supper in the early afternoon for 22 years, till her dad passed; the church going ended in her late teens. Pot roast, ham, turkey, and potatoes were typical fare — her mom worked full time, cooked nightly and the food was tasty. Now she has Sunday supper with her husband’s Jewish family, a happy evolution.
David Copper, a chef, is from Queens, but with deep Southern roots via his North Carolina grandmother. He wistfully recalls an all-pork meal every Sunday evening as a child. “It was homey; with sweet potatoes, mac & cheese, collard greens and fried food.”
Mark Greico’s family ate promptly at 3 p.m. It was always Italian food, a big meal, even when it was 90 degrees out he remembers with a smile. Church? Well, that was only until his confirmation. Grandpa Gustavio commanded the kitchen, setting a good example for Mark who was to become a chef of equal passion.
Another chef, Mark Russell, with Scotch/Welsh/Canadian/Upper Michigan roots, described the sequence as “Roast in, go to church, back to eat. Most often, top round or rump roast.” Once the family moved, the ritual was replaced with Sunday breakfast at a local restaurant with the nuclear family.
Sunday supper continues as a special time for families but it is a far less common, eroded by scheduling demands, detachment from church-going rituals, eclipsed by sport commitments (TV or participatory) and other modern day pulls.
In Georgia, The HandsOn Network hosted a Sunday supper in 2011; “Inspired by the legacy of Dr. King, America’s Sunday Supper invites people from diverse backgrounds to come together to share a meal, discuss issues that affect their community and highlight the power each one of us has to make a difference.”
And the Emily Post Institute offers tips for a “successful Sunday Supper” for bringing people together without the formality of a Saturday night dinner and the early finish of a school night gathering. Online, there is sundaysuppermovement.com, which offers and on on-line food community with recipes and events, and yes, brand sponsorships.
Sunday supper is creeping back into fashion, whether by activist communities or individuals hungry for the simplicity of home cooked meal and family face time. There is a revived social as well as culinary component, connecting the supper to southern heritage and regional recipes such as Gumbo and Creole style dishes from New Orleans in a cooking class in Berkeley, California. Food blogs promote the meal as “a special occasion to look forward to and can make the end of the weekend seem brighter.”
Sunday supper encourages families to cook and sit down to eat together. That alone merits our commendation. It presents an opportunity for young people to hone social and table skills, how appropriate and necessary. It encourages conversation and banishes ubiquitous electronic devices to the sidelines, how positively refreshing! And, unlike thanksgiving, Passover or Christmas, the next day is a workday — so the meal won’t go on forever so you don’t have to plan a timely escape.
If you have a Sunday supper tradition, please share it with me, along with any recipes and menus. I would love to hear more about this simple yet rich custom.
Liz Neumark is the CEO of Great Performances catering and the author of the cookbook “Sylvia’s Table.”