Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sunday Night Dinners

Why would an overextended writer and mother of two take on the additional task of throwing 25 dinner parties in 12 months? At this point, I'm not entirely sure, but it has something to do with wanting to combat those seemingly cliched, but ultimately important issues: community, family, human connection.

My tale begins just four years ago. My husband and I used to lead wildly social New York City lives, going out most evenings and being involved in various communities, organizations and social groups. Now in just a half of a decade, we’ve become virtual recluses, going to bed at 9, getting up at 5:30am, and rarely leaving our apartment after dark. It’s gotten so bad that last night, I decided I would stay up, drink a glass of wine and catch up on my magazine reading. Ten minutes later, I was asleep in my chair with my Sangiovese anchored precariously in my hand and my three-year-old standing in front of me asking: ”Daddy, why are Mama‘s eyes closed?”

How did this happen to me?

In my twenties I started the web site getcrafty.com. I knit, I decorated my crappy apartment, and I met with girlfriends every Friday night for drinks. I was a member of a writer’s group, an outer-borough dinning club and a stitch-n-bitch. Even when I was married, a typical evening might include attending a yoga class, meeting up with my husband for dinner around 9:00 and then catching up with friends for drinks before getting home around midnight. We had wide circles of friends and there were dinner parties, rooftop parties, salons, reading groups, art openings, champagne escapades and the like.

With our first child, Sydney, we were still quite adventurous. When he was one month old, we drove across the country in a rented car, eating pulled pork sandwiches and staying at motels that allowed babies and dogs (our fourteen-year-old Doberman also joined us). When Syd was one, we took out a student loan and went to Florence for six weeks to live out our own ex-pat fantasies. While neither trip was particularly prudent, they each had their own charm. With Syd, we still did most of the things we used to do, only with a baby in tow.

In Italy, our life was pretty terrific, save for the fact Sydney refused to sit through a meal--and that we were completely broke. Not that either mattered. Camping out in a studio apartment in the scruffy San Frediano district we lived out our own Fellini film, albeit one on a shoe-string budget and with a tiny dictator as our director. There was wine at lunch. There were hikes through the Renaissance city and quick visits to museums (Sydney screamed through Botticelli, wailed through Brunelleschi and laughed, loudly, through Francesca). Mostly we shopped at local markets for the bounty of summer in Tuscany: Porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, basil, fennel, fresh pasta, truffle oil, Pecorino and the unsalted breads of the region. Afternoons unfolded into early evening strolls for cocktails at our local outdoor café, where everyone knew Sydney by name. Once home, we would cook elaborate meals and share a bottle of wine. Often, we invited new friends to share in the bounty on our balcony table. Life, you could say, was almost too good. Two weeks after we returned, I discovered I was pregnant. Sydney was merely 12 months old.

There is nothing like two babies born back-to-back to squeeze out every last drop of adventure left in your system. With two, you give up trying to have it all and reconcile yourself to the chaos. There are babysitters to manage, preschool to go to, freelance writing assignments to juggle, and Steve’s academic career to fret about. There are tears and tantrums and toys strewn about and lunches to pack and a home to clean. It’s so exhausting that even though I wrote the book on modern crafting, I rarely have time to craft! This Christmas, instead of all handmade gifts that I usually send out, wrapped and packaged in unexpected ways, I merely knit one scarf for my father-in-law and gave up. Everyone else received gifts pre-wrapped by Amazon.com. The only remnants of my former crafty self is the quick and easy crafts I do with my kids in the afternoons––magic wands, bath-tub paints, making our own play-dough––and, the overly intricate dinners I make for our family each night. And yes, I love, adore, worship my family. But the adult part of my life has to be more than a cheap bottle of Shiraz and a few saved episodes Grey’s Anatomy.

I have decided that if we can’t afford a babysitter (nor the restaurant check at the end of the night), and I’m utterly obsessed with cooking, we’ll bring the party home. It’s what my family has always done. For my French immigrants grandparents, dinner parties were the focal point of life; it was the reason they toiled as waiters and chefs. They worked to pay the rent and to have enough money to eat well, plus spend time with friends, drinking and eating and arguing politics and philosophy. Somehow, this art—and it’s not just cooking, but community of the table––seems to have become lost in the shuffle of my own family life. So, against the better judgment of my weary girlfriends, the trepidation of my slightly misanthropic husband, and the warning from my therapist that it “sounds like a lot of work,” I’ve decided to take on this quest. I will cook 25 Sunday night dinners over the next year, starting now, Spring 2007. I will not cancel at the last minute, even though the house is a mess and the two-year-old is tired and throwing a hissy-fit. I will build community, even if it kills me.

In the end, the reason for my quest is simple. As the world becomes more global and technological and fast, we have become less connected to centuries-old tradition of communing over a meal. And while Meal by Meal is not necessarily about Slow Food, or against Fast Food, or decrying the loss of the family meal, it is about the possibilities of the table—of making time and space in your life for eating and enjoying with friends and family. Mostly it is about my attempts, as a thirty-six year old mother of two, a writer, and a citizen, to create meaning and share something of myself with the people around me. Over the course of one year, by throwing dinner parties a couple times a month, I hope to gain a better understanding of what it all means, or at least to have eaten a bunch of food, drank a lot of wine and enjoyed my friends.