The Secret Ingredient

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Kristen Frederickson

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Dinner. The very word evokes longing in me: what shall it be tonight? Thick English Gloucester Old Spot pork chops, their layer of fat sizzling, surrounded in the pan by quartered chestnut mushrooms, fresh sage leaves, and crème fraiche. Perhaps a slowly simmered stew of eggplant – “aubergine” as it’s called here in England – plum tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and a shower of chopped parsley. Lemon sole sautéed with a squirt of lemon juice and a sprinkling of Penzey’s incomparable Fox Point Seasoning. A simple supper of roasted vegetables: a whole crown of cauliflower, brussels sprouts plucked from the October soil, rich butternut squash with a hint of nutmeg and Demerara sugar, deep-red beetroot halves and delicate French Chantenay carrots.

It is only partly the prospect of such delicious food that makes me long for dinner. The secret ingredient to our evening meal is family.

We are a small family of three, my husband John, myself and our teenage daughter Avery, so we don’t suffer from the agonies of organization that plague my friends with several children and their lacrosse, netball, rugby and ballet schedules. Furthermore, John and I both work from home, so it is a happy daily ritual for us to discuss the upcoming evening meal, shop together, and for me to be working cozily at my precious Aga stove when Avery comes home from school.

John is a morning person, so he spends breakfast with Avery. I am a night person, staying up until midnight, so I’m the recipient of Avery’s late-evening conversation. What a shock it was to adjust to her bringing herself home from school, depriving me of that lovely afternoon “how was your day” chat. Dinner is really the only time we are all together, alert, awake and hungry both for the meal and the chance to talk.

When Avery was a baby, we insisted on her sitting with us at the dinner table, feeding her whatever we were eating simply whizzed up in a food processor, letting her listen to whatever we were discussing. How I remember the evening when, aged about two, she slammed her little hands down onto her high chair tray. “What. Are. You. Guys. TALKING ABOUT?” That’s when our dinner conversation stopped taking place over her head and began to include her.  What had happened at her sweet little Montessori preschool that day, how was gymnastics class, what funny thing had her best friend Cici said over their afternoon snack? These topics were aired along with the grownup things that occupied us.

There is something about sitting together with dishes to pass, the clinking of forks against china that changes conversation. It’s elevated from chat to a discussion of real ideas: gay marriage, Wikileaks, the death penalty, whether our next vacation should be to St Petersburg or Paris, what to do about the powder-post beetles that are eating up our farmhouse roof – all these topics get attention as we roll up roast duck into Chinese pancakes, cut extra portions of Charlotte potatoes baked with Wensleydale cheese, pass platters of beef fillets piled with mushroom Duxelles, share a dish of garlicky creamed spinach. Whether we live to eat (as I do), or eat to live (as Avery claims she does, although she is awfully enthusiastic about a bowl of tiny English peas with a dot of Normandy butter), we all live to enjoy our lives together every evening over, as Lord Peter Wimsey would say, “a slice of the breast and a glass of the best.”

What is your favorite thing about sitting around the dinner table?

Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson