In my meandering into adulthood, far-flung from my childhood home, “pop” became “soda,” “supper” became “dinner” and Sunday dinner became a thing of memory.
Saying soda still sounds a bit strange. I really miss being called to supper. And I sure do long for a good Sunday dinner.
If a distinction in terms needs to be made: supper is about the time; dinner is truly about the meal, and while some special dinners happened on other days of the week (such as holidays), most of the time, it was Sunday that was honored with a meal that rose above the rest.
I feel lucky that I grew up with Sunday dinner, a tradition no stranger to Kansans of many generations.
Sundays were built around that mid-day meal, for many a practice borne out of morning churchgoing, a slower day free of work and school and a chance to gather as a family. The anticipation of that lovingly prepared food was a part of the allure.
As famed Kansas food writer Clementine Paddleford put it: “It was in a yellow limestone church in Stockdale, Kansas, a crossroads town, that I sat dreaming during Sunday summer sermons, not of heaven or hell, but of the good dinner to come.”
In our house, Sundays were the slow, but well-rewarded waiting out of a large repast, served somewhere between 12 and 1, when our mother called out (as she did for most meals): “Vittles is!”
The day unfolded with the meal being prepared, and we took our turns passing through the small kitchen to witness each stage of the production: the sink scrubbed clean, then piled with pristine carrots and potatoes, onions, celery and cut cabbage. In a large pan, the massive cuts of meat reserved for the end of the week — thick steaks, roasts or loins, or hams or racks of ribs — were seasoned or seared. Or maybe in a large bowl of warm water, thawing whole catfish or a cut-up chicken lay ready to be floured and dropped, piece by piece, into a large skillet. Then, the frying and roasting, the timing of the gravy, the intoxicating aroma of onion and spices.
While our mom was the maestro of these meals (save for my dad’s occasional turn at chopping or some sort of meat management), my sister and I were usually called in for last-minute duties, wandering into the kitchen in a hungry delirium, bellies growling, through the steams and smells of the finishing dinner to whip potatoes and set the table with the good (aka, breakable) dishes.
Winter or summer; hot or cold weather, you could count on this gathering in the kitchen to eat, this spearing of meat and passing of biscuits or rolls, of dipping out roasted potato halves and lengths of carrots dripping with “natural pan gravy.” Then, the simplicity of dessert — Jell-O with fruit or strawberry shortcake. The rest of the day took on the contented bliss of full stomachs and the reassurance of leftovers in the refrigerator.
It was all what made Sunday…Sunday. And it was always awaited and it was always good, and it made the difference in the bleakness of a January day, where even the sun was not bright enough to cut through the biting north wind.
The only time we missed our own Sunday dinner was when we went to someone else’s, like my Grandma Howard, who religiously laid out her own platters of roast and ham, which she called “a snack,” in a seemingly effortless process she started that morning with the lemon-blueberry Bundt cakes she made nearly every week.
On Sundays, now, which still feel like no other day of the week, I do notice an empty space that calls to me, that I sometimes fill with — what else — food, in baking and cooking projects or the longer-drawn-out preparation of a meal. Do people still do Sunday dinner? I wonder and hope that they do.
“Sunday dinner was once an American institution, a strong, familiar thread running deeply through our national fabric. I believe it can be that way again,” writes Russell Cronkhite in the introduction to his book “Return to Sunday Dinner: The Simple Delights of Family, Friends, and Food” (Thomas Nelson; 2012). “Sunday dinner, I believe, can be both a touchstone to our past and a foundation on which to build memories.”
Bridgette A. Lacy, in her book “Sunday Dinner” (University of North Carolina Press, Inc.; 2015), suggests ways to keep the tradition alive, whether with smaller families, groups of singles, friends and neighbors, who are assigned chores and turn it into a potluck gathering, where everyone brings their “signature dishes.”
It might be a good time, when the speediness of everything leaves us flat, to slow down and return to Sunday dinner, whether it be a table for one or 10. Set out the good dishes. The hunger is there. The roasting pan awaits.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”