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On Gathering and Sam Sifton's See You on Sunday

Growing up, we ate dinner at church every Wednesday night. Long tables were set in long rows on one half of the gym. Families would gather, friends would hug, and kids ran around until parents or grandparents called them to wash hands, get in line. The kitchen was open to the serving area, industrial but filled with the warmth brought by both the ovens and the voice of Mrs. Gaudie. She greeted the adults as we rolled trays along the silver metal, and she presided over the women who handed us plates of fried chicken and green beans, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken casserole and rice, and always, always, soft buttered rolls. If you got there early enough, Mrs. Gaudie would let the children come back in the kitchen to eat the rolls straight out of the pan, after she had laced them with melted butter, of course. At the end were the little plates of dessert. Flowers in little vases on the paper-covered tables. A blessing. A lot of conversation. And then, we would disperse - to bible studies and choir practices and prayer groups, or perhaps just to sit and visit on the steps outside.

As an adult, I look back and marvel at the gift of those suppers. The investment of time and energy and resources that such an undertaking required was enormous - both on the part of the church and its staff and on the part of my parents. Their commitment to that time around those tables resulted in a consistent truth in my life, a thing I could rely on. For nearly half my life, I ate dinner in that gym. I am certain that if I were to walk in the lower doors to that church today, I would be brought nearly to my knees by the visceral memories bubbling out of that kitchen.

Sam Sifton, food editor of The New York Times, knows something of these dinners. He has cooked Sunday suppers at an Episcopal church in Brooklyn and countless dinners for friends and family. He knows the goodness found when children and adults gather around a communal meal, one that is more fellowship than fancy. In his new book See You on Sunday, Sifton wants to draw us back to those long tables.

To be clear, all of the recipes look delicious and impressive, but most are straight-forward and just the kind of nudge you may need to put the book down and confidently invite some people over for a weekly dinner. Sifton is the best kind of coach: insistent that you can do it, encouraging when you aren't sure, forgiving when you need to make a last-minute substitution. Because here's the secret hidden inside this cookbook: It ain't about the food.

The recipes, however good they prove to be, are just a path through which you can achieve the larger goal, and that is gathering with friends or family (or both!) for a big jumble of voices and stories and dishes and laughter, with intention and with consistency. The point is exactly as Sifton explains in the introduction:

"Life satisfaction, the academics say, is strongly correlated with time spent with those who care about you and about whom you care. Dinner is a marvelous way to create that time, to mark it, to make it happen. The life satisfaction does not come from the first meal, or the fifth or the twentieth, but from the effort itself, from the accrual of experience in cooking the meal and sharing it. Regularity matters. Sunday dinners, at their best, are simply special occasions that are not at all extraordinary. They become that way over time."

Obviously, there is no justice in your book about big weekly dinners being released during a global pandemic in which we are called upon to love our neighbors best by staying away from them. The churches are all closed. Nobody is pushing their long tables together and flinging open the doors right now. Nobody is hosting a dinner party. But, as is true with every recipe, there is always hope. Consider this book like a seed catalog in the middle of a Minnesota winter. The season will be long and possibly cruel. But once we get on the other side of it, we can start growing things again. We can plant a garden full of all the hopes we gathered from those catalog pages during the winter.

So, too, could you start now, practicing some of the recipes in these pages, perhaps the First-Night Pasta or the Chicken Adobo. You could start thinking about who you want to invite. You could consider which day of the week might work best for you and yours, for it also ain't about the day. The point, Sifton explains, is "to cook or, more accurately, ... to gather around a table with family and eat, and to do that regularly enough that people knew it was happening, could depend on it somehow, this consistency in a world that doesn't offer a lot of that outside of work and pain." Whether that happens at Sunday lunch or Thursday dinner is not what matters.

Mrs. Gaudie passed away just last January. She was 95. I like to think she would be proud to know her work lives on in folks like Sam Sifton: a legacy of welcoming the hungry, feeding the lonely, and inviting folks to gather around a table. It doesn't have to be a special occasion. It becomes extraordinary over time.


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