A full plate

Supper, dinner, whatever custom and region call it, the point is the pot roast.

Walking into the house after church, the rich smell of beef cooking in gravy with potatoes and carrots wafts from the kitchen. It’s a sturdy scent, earthy and dense, a mom-in-her-apron smell, dad-with-his-tie-loosened.

Kids set the table, various relations soon knock on the front door. Maybe they just come on in, familiar on this Sunday afternoon.

There are rolls, of course, and some sort of salad. It’s the day’s, and probably the week’s, Big Meal. There is dessert served on little plates after everything else is cleared away. Norman Rockwell smiles benevolently in the corner.

But if memory serves, there are spills and arguments, sighs and rolled eyes. The sepia tones of a romanticized past cannot entirely haze out the imperfections. Still, the Sunday dinner, when food was — and is? — prepared and eaten, when corny jokes are made about loosening the belt, when the familiarity of the faces seated around the table represents contentment and stability and, thankfully, security.

These are busy times, though — frantic, even. Everybody running everywhere all the time, scheduled and planned until the calendar bursts. Hooray for things that can be done in 30 minutes or less. And more than half a century into this mobile society, it’s not like grandma lives next door. Chances are, she and grandpa are several states away, Sunday dinner cooked and no babies around to eat it.

So, there’s the memory and there’s the reality, Sunday dinner as relic or as something real. Maybe a little of both.

In memory, it was eaten after church. Mom got up early and put something in the slow cooker or on slow simmer on the stove — a pot roast, if dad had his way, or maybe a big pot of spaghetti sauce or chicken and dumplings. While wiggly children were wrangled into ties and Sunday ruffles, the meat began cooking, and then out the door to services.

However, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, 51.2 percent of Americans aren’t church members, so if Sunday dinner still matters, then it isn’t necessarily about coming home from church to the big meal. If Sunday dinner is still Sunday Dinner, then the steps of the ritual have changed but the reasons for doing them are the same: eating together.

“It’s that one opportunity for us to slow down and enjoy each other’s company,” said Dan Kirby, coordinator of the culinary arts program at Western Colorado Community College. “We look at stories of the French and Italian families who will get together, maybe on a Sunday, and have two-, three-, four-hour eating extravaganzas. They’ll have all these small courses and sit around and converse, and that’s missing in our country.”

Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, in the September 2012 “The Importance of Family Dinners VIII,” reported that teenagers who ate dinner with their families at least five times per week were one and a half times more likely to say they have an excellent relationship with their mother and father than teenagers who ate family dinners less than three times per week.

These same family-dinner-having teenagers, according to the study, were less likely to use alcohol and marijuana, which strikes a dire note for busy families gobbling Chicken McNuggets in the car on the way to basketball practice.

Take hope, though: “The question isn’t really do you eat dinner together, the question is are you involved in your family’s life,” Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founder of the New York University Child Study Center, told The New York Times in 2007. “Dinner is something we can count, so it becomes shorthand for much more. But it’s not the food that’s important as much as the time and connection.”

And that circles back to Sunday dinner, once a week, a pot roast feast in gilded memory, more likely to be a pizza extravaganza these days.

“I do think a dinner where the whole family can be together, where you can get rid of the phone and turn off the TV and just sit around as a family and chat is so important,” said Dixie Burmeister, who has taught health and nutrition in the Grand Valley for more than 30 years. “I think any time where you can just get away from the pressures of regular life and be together is vital.”

She even suggested that a meal might be Sunday dinner in spirit, if not in reality: breakfast together, perhaps, where everyone is around the table and unhurried and united in facing the world.

And if Sunday dinner might be interpreted metaphorically, then those with whom it’s eaten could be given a looser interpretation, too, a more inclusive definition of “family.”

Years ago, when generations lived their whole lives in the same town, if not on the same block, Sunday dinner was a thing eaten at grandma’s house around an enormous table. Whatever rough edges the meal included are smoothed by time, until these Sunday dinners were nothing but cherished recollections.

Now, the family at Sunday dinner might be a self-selected tribe of friends and actual relations. But still, the point remains to eat together, to talk and tune out the static and be nourished. The best Sunday dinners stretch into hours, into sunset-to-indigo skies and lamps turned on, into kids retreating to the den while adults push back from the table and stretch out their legs, but make no move to get up.

The mess from Sunday dinner is no picnic, and the dishes pile high. But done with the Sunday dinner crowd, not so bad.

Sunday dinner is less than Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but more than Progresso-in-front-of-the-TV dinner.

It is pot roast and mashed potatoes, rolls from a can or bread from scratch, shameless dessert and two loads for the dishwasher. And it is time — together, unhurried, filled.


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