On Sundays, we always have a dinner that was more formal and elaborate than the casual suppers eaten at the kitchen table during the week. We would eat in the dining room, sometimes with the fancy place settings saved for the best occasions. This was particularly true if we had company for dinner, like my grandparents or aunts and uncles.
We would return home from Sunday Mass and my mother would begin to bustle around the kitchen, organizing pots and pans, preparing pastry or other goodies. She would peel the potatoes & leave them soaking in a big bowl of water. Next came the vegetables – carrots, peeled & sliced with a special cutter that made them rippled, or chopped turnip and carrots to be cooked and mashed together with a bit of butter and brown sugar. In season, fresh peas from out garden would be shelled. Iceberg lettuce or fresh lettuce from the garden would be chopped up with fresh tomatoes and served with my mom’s homemade salad dressing.
Sometimes a fat chicken would be filled with savory stuffing. Other times it would be a pork shoulder, or a ham or a beef roast surrounded by potatoes that would come out of the oven golden and delicious. The vegetables would be boiled, drained & drizzled with butter. The pan drippings would magically be transformed into rich thick gravy.
Dessert would be special on Sundays as well – apple pie, or pumpkin pie heaped with whipped cream, or tangy lemon pie mounded with meringue covered in golden peaks. My father particularly loved apple pie with a chunk of strong cheddar cheese on the side. My favourite was “flapper pie” with a graham cracker crust and lovely custard filling.
For special occasions like Christmas or Easter, the table would be set with my mother’s good china, a wedding gift, lovingly displayed in a glass fronted cabinet in the dining room and only taken out on special occasions. And her heavy silverware from the velvet-lined box would be brought out and opened in a ceremonious manner to be cleaned and polished. My mother’s lovely lace tablecloth, also a wedding gift, would be brought out and unfolded with care. Lord help anyone who spilled gravy on it!
Illustration is from The Emily Post Institute
The table was always set with special attention paid to the placement of the knives & forks, the water glasses just there, the dessert spoons set like so. Eventually, the meal would be ready and we would all take our seats. We would then say “grace” and give thanks for the meal. We did that for every mealtime except breakfast. Heaping bowls of mashed potatoes and vegetables would be passed around from person to person. The roast would be sliced and displayed on a large platter and that too would be passed down the table. As kids we were served up a bit of everything.
There was always a buzz of chatter that welled up after our plates were filled. There would be funny stories, laughter, admonishments to “eat your vegetables or there will be no dessert” and “don’t talk with your mouth full”. We learned table manners, the courtesy of saying please and thank you, and the art of conversation. We were taught to eat everything put before us, even if we didn’t care for it. It was a very good lesson for those times we ate at someone else’s house where the food was not like home.
We were all on our best behaviour, even the adults, inspired by the table setting and the ceremony and the preparation that went into the meal. The food was the centerpiece but the celebration of sharing, warm & satisfying, was the real event. The stories told and retold many times at those dinner tables over the years taught us the history of our family, who our people were and who we were.
As my own children grew up, I made the effort to keep Sunday dinner as a special event at the end of the week, marking the beginning of a new week. There was usually time on Sunday for the preparations and baking and special touches that did not fit into the usual weekday dinners. And like in my childhood, the sharing of the food and the time together laughing and talking and telling stories was actually the most meaningful part of the experience, keeping us connected to each other and adding new tales to the lore of our family history.