Her ladyship, the editor talks to Bridgette Lacy about the joys of Sunday Dinner

 

Bridgette Lacy

LB: This is an unusual addition to the UNC Press "Savor the South" series -- most of the books are about single ingredients or dishes: "Buttermilk," "Peaches," "Biscuits,"(I have the "Bourbon" one!). So how did the idea for "Sunday Dinner" come about?

Sunday DinnerBL: Sunday Dinner was such a big part of my life growing up that I have a natural affinity for the subject.  I was well aware of the single ingredient focus of the series but I needed the whole meal.  I felt so strongly about the concept that I pitched the idea to Editor Elaine Maisner.  She wasn’t initially sold on Sunday Dinner since it was a departure from the initial concept. However, after sharing my stories about my beloved culinary-minded Papa and my connection to shared meals and the value of breaking bread with those you love, she embraced the idea too.  So Sunday Dinner was born.

LB: Most of the recipes in the book seem to be from your own family and friends, but some aren't. How did you pick a recipe for the book if it wasn't one from your own memories?

BL:I consider myself an expert taster.  As a former features writer and food columnist for The News & Observer I was invited to many meals.  Over the years, I’ve made mental note of food combinations and ingredients whether from a friend’s dinner table or a favorite restaurant.  When compiling recipes for the book, I knew I wanted to include main dishes, sides and breads that might be somewhat familiar but also wanted to include recipes that could be prepared to elevate the big meal of the week.

LB: It seems to me that this is more than a cookbook, it's a call for a kind of lifestyle -- one where we take the time to connect with the people who matter to us over a shared meal. What picture comes to mind when you hear the words "Sunday dinner"?

BL: I envision friends and family gathered around the table eager to dive into delicious, well-seasoned dishes. The centerpiece would be a big meat such as a perfectly-browned roast or a Sunday staple such as fried chicken. A couple of baskets filled with homemade bread would be in reaching distance for the guests. Of course there would also be plenty of desserts to satisfy that after-dinner sweet tooth.  The table might be set with China, crisp linens and large glass tumblers.  Sunday dinner would also have lots of big and small conversations with hearty bouts of laughter all around, a sure sign that the fellowship is being enjoyed just as much as the meal.

 

LB: As you point out in the book, we are a nation of busy people. Many are single. Many settle for subsisting on microwaved meals, take out, and rushed meals in restaurants. How can they have a Sunday Dinner tradition in their lives?

BL: Sunday dinner buoys the spirit especially when it’s shared with the folks you love. You can make it a collaborative effort.  When I lived in Indianapolis, I started a Sunday Dinner group.  There were four of us and we rotated hosting duties once a month.  At the time, we were all single and away from home. I also used the occasion to clear my dining room table and pull out my pretty underused China. If you’re thinking about starting a similar group, here are a few things to consider. Share the hosting responsibilities. Break down the tasks of the meal.  Have everyone bring a dish to contribute.   I think you feel better sharing a meal with friends and family and a dinner group can fit that bill.

LB: I think of Sunday dinner as a full course meal, but your book doesn't have an appetizer section. Why not?

BL: My grandfather’s Sunday Dinner needed no opening act. It was such a big meal, the largest one of the week with several vegetables, always homemade breads, maybe two meats, and homemade pies and cake. So I just stayed with that tradition.

LB: I love this statement about your grandfather: "He taught me the first bite is with the eye" Can you explain what that means?

BL: Papa’s food was so pretty.  It was always laid out in a nice bowl or dish and decorated beautifully.  In general, he liked things neat and ordered and his meals were no different.  He would take lots of time to score his ham and strategically insert the cloves so the pattern was just right.  His potato salad would be adorned with even slices of boiled eggs and sprinkled with paprika for that perfect pop of color.  I learned to love the simple beauty of a well-prepared and well-presented meal from my grandfather and it guides my own food offerings today.

LB: I also love your advice for people looking to establish their own Sunday Dinner traditions: "Use real linen and china, what are you saving it for?" -- as someone who just inherited her grandmother's dishes, that resonated with me!  But it is really about recognizing what are meaningful traditions in your own life, and allowing them to grow, isn't it?

BL: Yes, it’s about savoring this very minute and enjoying the things that are in front of you today.  Several years ago, I had brain surgery.  As I healed, that’s when I really began to use everything.  Dishes, clothes, even books I had put off reading.  I realized “that special day” is right here, right now.  Everyday tea cups and dishes are more like pieces of art to me because they make me feel better when I use them, often because they are connected to things that are meaningful.   My mother gave me a set of small yellow plates and I remember she used them to serve pancakes on when I was visiting.  Now, when I use those dishes whether for pancakes or something else, I think of her.  No need to wait for tomorrow to take advantage of all the wonderful things sitting in front of you today.  We work so hard for all of these things.  I say, use them.  Enjoy them.  Life is not a dress rehearsal.

LB: In the South, as you point out, Sunday traditions revolve around Church. What are some of the ways in which Sunday Dinner and going to Church are linked to each other?

BL: My grandparents and parents were church-goers. Interesting enough, my grandparents attended separate church. My grandmother went to Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and my grandfather loved the old country church in Madison Heights, Va. We normally attended grandma’s church but on special occasions like a homecoming we would go to the country church. At Papa’s church, those old ladies would often sing a capella and then sometimes the pianist would join in. He would say, “She can really knock a piano.” My shoes would be a clicking, loving the way those ladies sang, so pure. Church and Sunday Dinner were connected because it was all part of the blessing. My family felt all the good things came from God and Sunday Dinner was a part of that.

LB: Reading through the book, and trying out many of the recipes, I felt like one of your goals was to strike a balance between tradition and the demands of our modern era. You make a point of saying, for example, that it's fine to use store-bought pie crust if you don't have the time or talent to make it from scratch. Were there any traditions that you left out of the book?

BL: I mentioned it but I can’t emphasize it enough, clean the kitchen as you go. Wash the pots as you use them.

LB: What would be your ideal Sunday Dinner for this time of year, September?

BL: Hmmm. There are so many choices, so little time.  OK, if I have to narrow it down how about some Fragrant Sunday Chicken with Olives and Apricots, Green Beans with Fingerling Potatoes, Cucumber Tomato Salad and Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake. I am full already.

 

Bridgette A. Lacy is a journalist who writes about food for the Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She also served as a longtime features and food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.