Early last fall, I sat eating the most delicious chocolate brownie at Sweet Lady Jane's in Los Angeles. Chocolate brownies are by far one of my most decadent guilty pleasures. I was meeting Laurie David, whose cookbook, The Family Dinner, is one of the most beautiful books I have read, one that has resonated with me professionally, spiritually and emotionally, in every way. It feels kind of surreal when that happens, so the brownie was a treat for the celebrated moment -- and a way to ease my nerves.
When Laurie got there I immediately explained that her idea for Taco Tuesdays had become a treasured ritual in my young family. Additionally, Wednesdays at our house are Prince Spaghetti Nights and we just initiated Gnocchi Nights on the 29th of every month. As I told her, there is something very comforting about these weekly rituals. Laurie then asked me if we did regular Shabbat dinners. I know I went beet red ... that Jewish guilt. I stumbled to explain that I married a non-practicing Catholic, trying to implore that while I didn't do weekly Shabbos dinners now, I had growing up. She nodded in that compassionate "I see right through you" way, looked me dead in the eyes and, gently, simply stated that it was so much more than a religious ritual.
This simple comment brought back strong memories of growing up in Fairfield, Connecticut. Every Friday my family would go to Moishes and pick up a challah and a few knishes. I loved the spinach ones and could never get enough of that sweet smell of the challah. Friday nights were lovely: a formal table setting, slow sips of the sickly sweet Manischewitz wine, eating challah 'til it hurt, nibbling on roast chicken and cranberry sauce and the anticipation of what my mom would give us for dessert. I don't know what was sweeter: my mom's flourless chocolate cake or my hope for it.
Twenty-four years later, but never too late, I am ready to adopt Shabbat dinners for my family; to teach my kids to make strawberry, cherry, raspberry and apricot Homentachen (a doughy cookie filled with preserves served during Purim); to keep trying to make better latkes (my girlfriend Gail Simmons makes the best); to recreate my grandmother's amazing noodle Kugel with peaches and raisins, and to throw at least one to two bagel brunches with the works (tuna salad, lox with tomatoes, purple onion and capers).
It's funny: I went to a girlfriend's house with my kiddos and she put out a similar spread to that of my parents, and for a few precious moments it felt like time had stood still. I wasn't at her house but rather at the Sunday brunch after my Bat Mitzvah. As Chef Grant Achatz so eloquently explains in an interview with Epicurious, "That's the beauty of a food memory -- as soon as I take a bite... I'm transported back to when I was 7 years old. It's a powerful, powerful thing."
Food has that magic.
There is much serenity to be found in predictability. Perhaps if we take the religion out of Shabbat dinner, what we have left is a very, very special weekly dinner ritual in which you can include friends and family -- anyone whom you love, for all are welcome. Friday nights can become more than the end of the week. They can be transformed into evenings dedicated to bringing people together, sharing meals and gratitudes, creating memories and community, savoring every bite, every minute together, around the table.
This is what I think Laurie meant.
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