Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Dinner

Ham awaits preparation at a Sunday dinner we had with our Shaker friends in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

"Sunday Dinner" by Dan Masterson, is a pleasant conjurer of so many things for me: family gatherings, good food, communion, fellowship. [I highly recommend the daily poem in your email via Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac."] We used to entertain a lot more in New Hampshire, sometimes to the level that the poem describes (remember that my pantries had stuff in them that needed to be used once in a while!). But what it reminds me of most is the family dinners we used to have at my grandparents' Ohio house where we gathered together with my grandparents at the helm (who were raised during the last gasps of Victorian formality), their two children (my dad and his sister), their two spouses (my uncle and mother) and we six grandchildren (all cousins and siblings). We didn't get together on Sundays in any formal way but about once a month we would gather for either a birthday or a holiday dinner, or some combination of the two. My grandmother, if anything, was a great matriarch that way. Now we are deceased or scattered across the lower-48, as so many families are today, rather helm-less at times.

In New Hampshire, on my grandparents' farm (on my mother's side of the family), my grandmother would frequently roast one of their chickens for Sunday dinner after church–or just because–and serve it with vegetables and new potatoes from the garden. We would drive over to Silver Ranch (now Kimball Farms) for homemade ice cream for dessert. While the farm was a less formal environment, it was just as filled with that family sense of gathering and purpose, of old and repeated stories, of new thoughts and ideas, or laughter and foot nudges under the table. The last family gathering we had there was at Thanksgiving in 2003 when my mother brought us altogether for the last time. Now it seems like a pleasant dream from another lifetime.

Thanksgiving dinner in New Hampshire.
The poem "Sunday Dinner," which really seems like more of a winter or autumn poem to me, is about the formal trappings of gathering and ritual, even though it does not mention a person in it. Family and fellowship is only implied. A reminder of the Victorian age when the sideboard was a kind of gastronomic altar of abundance and plenty, the poem also evokes a simple Sunday dinner, too. You could say that this poem is just about food, inanimate objects and their presentation. When I read it, I also think about who might have cooked the food, how it was presented, what was the feeling behind it, who may have served it, and who were those who gathered to eat it. I think of the communal nourishment that is the essential part of so many gatherings of family or friends.

In some way, every family has had a Sunday dinner on occasion. I want to strive to make it more of a routine again in our household and not just for holidays. I hope that I am a matriarch-in-training for my children, and perhaps grandchildren, one day. I do believe, from both observation and experience, that every family needs a loving but declarative, no-nonsense but objective, matriarch or patriarch (or both) at its helm to be successful as a unit. Otherwise we can feel rather adrift and rudderless. And because there is nothing like a mother ship in a weary world.

Sunday Dinner
Linen napkins, spotless from the wash starched
And ironed, smelling like altar cloths. Olives
And radishes wet in cut glass, a steaming gravy bowl
Attached to its platter, an iridescent pitcher cold
With milk, the cream stirred in moments before.

The serving fork, black bones at the handle, capped
In steel, tines sharp as hatpins. Stuffed celery,
Cut in bite-sized bits, tomato juice flecked
With pepper, the vinegar cruet full to the stopper
Catching light from the chandelier.

Once-a-week corduroyed plates with yellow trim,
A huge mound of potatoes mashed and swirled.
Buttered corn, side salads topped with sliced tomatoes,
A tall stack of bread, a quarter-pound of butter
Warmed by its side. And chicken, falling off the bone:
Crisp skin baked sweet with ten-minute bastings.

Homemade pies, chocolate mints and puddings,
Coffee and graceful glasses of water, chipped ice
Clinking the rims.

Cashews in a silver scoop, the centerpiece a milkglass
Compote with caved-in sides, laced and hung
With grapes, apples, and oranges for the taking.
~ Dan Masterson
[from All Things, Seen and Unseen. © University of Arkansas Press, 1997]


willow said...

Mmm...I love the notion of napkins smelling like alter cloths, since eating, for me, is very much a spiritual experience.

cindy said...

I will be having a booth at the 127 yardsale.

I was suprised to see Willow....I visit her and her sister's site daily.

Maybe I'll see you at the yardsale.

Catherine said...

Cindy--whereabouts do you have your booth? I know it is a VERY long yard sale ;)

It has become a favorite part of our year here and I try to reserve antiquing time (and "budget") for this one weekend.

Thanks for stopping by ~


PS And Willow's site is beautiful. Did not know about her sister's.