12 Days of Dinner
“How many people?” My youngest son Jack takes out knives, forks, and a stack of puckered linen napkins and I tell him we’ll be nine tonight. He sets places for me, his dad, his brothers, my sisters and brother in-law, and two dear friends who are also neighbors. Tonight’s meal is easy, truffle pasta, made with boxed linguine and a jar of chopped truffles and mushrooms. Sure, I’ll add a little cheese, and salt and pepper, but nothing that would elevate it to a recipe. There are snacks—celery, pretzels, a little ajvar I made with some end-of-summer eggplant and red pepper, and some of those luscious blackberries from Rosewood Market—just a few things to round out the meal. I can always find something else in the fridge if we have more people than expected.
My sister Elizabeth comes in and makes a beeline for the roasted red pepper and eggplant spread inspired by my half- Serbian husband. She knows the story behind it so there’s no need to explain. As people trickle in, the room feels just right, warm and lively.
This is no holiday dinner party— this is just us, sharing a meal at the end of the day with friends and family during a busy season. Before we became parents, our dinners were leisurely. We’d start cooking around 8, sitting down to a gourmet meal around 9. We kept it up after the birth of our first son, feeding him something light and waiting until after he went to bed to make a more elaborate meal for ourselves. When our oldest caught on to the fact that our food was better than his, around the time his little brother came along, we ate earlier. The inside of our refrigerator started to look more and more like my parents’ fridge. It seemed silly not to share all that bounty, so we started inviting people to our weeknight table.
After our mother died, my sisters moved home, which tempered my loneliness a little. Just a few years later, in a split second, our father was gone, and my sisters, our brother, and I lost a lot.
This is just us, sharing a meal at the end of the day with friends and family.
Among so many other things, we lost a place to go for casual dinner, just to check in and have a few laughs. While my house doesn’t offer all the same amenities (laundry service and cable TV, for a start), I can put together a casserole. Or a bowl of pasta, a pot roast or a quick stir-fry. When you’re already feeding five, adding a few more plates to the table doesn’t cost a thing, especially if you answer truthfully when someone asks “What can I bring?” Dinner’s covered, but we’ll take the veggies you bought at Soda City Farmers’ Market and didn’t get around to cooking, or a bunch of bananas since we’re out. Or dessert, which is always welcome, and will get you invited back.
Some people leaf through stacks of cookbooks or head to the internet when they’re planning a meal. I just open the fridge, because all of our meals are based on what’s there. It’s easy to feed extra people when you waste nothing. A handful of leftover pasta is the base for a casserole. Half an onion gets caramelized and used as a pizza topping. Bits and pieces of different cheeses get added to one spectacular pimiento cheese. Bones, parmesan rinds and vegetable scraps get tossed into a freezer bag to make stock later. That stock will turn into soup or risotto. Those scraps feed multitudes. As for the loaves and fishes? If there’s any grouper left over, we’ll have fish rillettes as an appetizer the next night.
There’s always enough, and my heart is as full as my table when I listen to the kids telling my friends about something funny that happened at school, or my husband and my brother talking tennis, or any other conversation that bubbles up. In our house, family dinner is just dinner, a time to unwind with people who don’t expect multi-course meals, don’t judge us for changing into our stretchy pants-and always help with the dishes, because they know our kitchen almost as well as we do.