08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is Work? La Dolce Vita at Dinnertime

Oh, yes!

It's the end of a long workweek. You've pitched and pondered, proposed, carpooled, created, supervised and been "directed." You're frazzled, fried and in need of some restorative downtime, big-time.

What better way to unwind than by whipping up ... a seven-course Italian family dinner from scratch?

The idea sounds insane. Which is, of course, what drew me to and its proponent, Michele Carbone, author of Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, one bite at a time.

Michele's goal is to aid harried, hurried Americans in "finding happiness by living a food centric lifestyle like the Italians."

Let's leave aside the fact that, for some of my buds in Italy, a food-centric lifestyle means stopping at "Burgies" for a double-patty and some patatine frite.

Michele's idea is more Buddhism-meets-bucatini. By turning a chore - ie: the labor needed to prepare her book's summertime Friday night dinner menu - into a focused effort of passion and intention, we can cook our way out of the week's professional frying pan and into a family-bonded transitional night of something deliciously higher.

Back in Italy, now that I think of it, the same friends who ate burgers on their more "American" - ie: quick-pleasure-fix days - held cooking competitions on the weekends.

They'd pick vegetables from their family gardens, fruit from their orchard or local market and everything else from its designated specialist in town: butcher, baker, etc.

The prep phase of the "competition" started in the late afternoon. Dinner was served somewhere between 10 pm and midnight.

We were supposed to award one set of points for each plate's visual beauty and another for taste. But by the second course, everyone was too busy laughing and talking to keep score.

The cooks worked hard. But they were playing - and spending time in beloved company. People, place and time were their ingredients, too.

This kind of long time-line, labor-intensive way of eating doesn't come naturally to Americans who've grown up in a Rice-a-Roni, Jello 1-2-3, microwave culture.

But the shift can be made. in Michele Carbone's case, it reflects her changing definition of work, and working.

"I always expected to work," she explains, via email. "I was one of the first women to break into the male dominated field of engineering, and I was very serious about having a career with a supportive family."

Then, thirteen years ago, her older daughter had a brain injury, at the age of eight.

"...[T]urning to food as a creative outlet after Kristin's brain injury was a natural outlet for me. Plus, we still needed to eat. Kristin doesn't talk anymore; the doctors also told me she would never eat orally-I refused to believe it and worked diligently to get her eating and swallowing safely again."

Food became a way for Michele, engineer and mother, to work with - and help - her daughter. And then it became something more.

After 14 months of being on leave of absence, I notified my boss that I was ready to come back to work, at least part-time. He notified me that I was being laid off.

The Friday Evening meal evolved because of two things. My father in law used to take Kate to piano lessons every Friday afternoon. He would then stay for dinner. Also, our local farmers market occurs on Friday mornings.

We also have a fantastic caregiver who works on Fridays, thereby allowing me the luxury of cooking and dining myself. We had many wonderful conversations (politics, current events, history, and literature-whatever someone had heard during the week that was interesting...) and after awhile, everyone started yearning for Friday. It became an event to look forward to; staying at home, versus going out to dinner, a movie, or a bar...

Our new view of food doesn't have to be as vast or dramatic, Michele insists. But we can make the leap from viewing multi-course Friday nights as something to "be done with, asap" to viewing them as a something worth doing.

"Our jobs are the things we have to do so that we get the money to enable us to spend the rest of our time drinking wine and playing with our food," she writes.

And the reward is in the all-o


"There is a sort of peace that comes from having prepared such a feast. Am I exhausted? Yes! But it is a good state of being tired...By the time I've finished the dishes, I'm beginning to think about Saturday's dinner; or perhaps, a frittata for lunch with some of the leftovers..."

And with that - and a Buon appetito a tutti quanti! - I'm off to work on some lunch.