McArthur's law and roast potatoes
The disappearance of Sunday dinner
The doorbell rang while I was dishing dinner to Ajax and Willow -- a half can each of Friskies Turkey and Giblets served in Pyrex custard cups. Callers are rare in the early evening, so as I extricated my ankles from avid feline fur and opened the door, I was prepared to greet a siding salesman or a pair of white-shirted missionaries barely old enough to shave. Instead, the doorway disclosed a bouquet of party-dressed six year olds -- one carried a Marshall Fields shopping bag, another clutched a sheet from a yellow legal pad.
A tiny blonde blossom stepped up as Spokesgrrrl and consulted the canary document. Looking up, she thrust it in my direction. "Do you have any of the things on this paper? Kelsey’s having a scavenger hunt for her birthday party."
Kids still have birthday parties that don't involve bad pizza, a dizzying decibel level and surrogate Moms far from the family McMansion? Who knew? I scanned the list and grabbed the item closest to hand, which, given the hour, was a napkin on the coffee table -- in this case the cocktail variety, bearing the damp imprint of a martini glass and a handy recipe for my winsome mixologists to be.
I wended my way back to the kitchen and mused about the wonder of this encounter. A scavenger hunt! Hair ribbons! Was it possible that Kelsey's mother had baked the birthday cake rather than order the supermarket slab? Had she done better than the tombstone encrusted with shortening buttercream, limned with an image of Barbie, outlined in gel the texture and color of Colgate on crack? I dared to hope. I really wanted to hope.
McArthur's Law: Nostalgia leads to heart failure, selective memory and hardening of the attitudes. The good old days weren't. Tomorrow is another day, Maggie, and it just might be a better day than yesterday. This principle helps how this bemused, befuddled and bufflebrained woman greets the morning, because any other way would encourage vapors, Valium and lipstick neglect.
But the sweet scavengers had shown up Proust and his madeleines as the pikers they are. I grated cheddar for the cheese grits and discovered that my red mules had meandered down that twisty treacherous path: Memory Lane.
Along with pin-the-tail on the donkey, white industrial garter belts and an ashtray on my desk at work, what else had gone the way of MS-DOS and the dodo while I was taking a forty year nap? Cousins imprisoned in iron lungs before Salk invented polio vaccine. Restrooms labeled “White” and “Colored.” Cars without seatbelts or cup holders. The Soviet bloc.
All are as extinct as that red-handled Rube Goldberg device the eggbeater, three-martini lunches and bridge in the afternoon. Remember a letter in the mailbox, glam rock and macramé plant holders, to say nothing of those October 31sts when I waited for the dark and snow of a Quebec Halloween, wearing quilted pants under my fairy princess costume. We spared nary a worry about razor blades as we gobbled homemade fudge and McIntosh apples and popcorn balls that other kids' Mums had made from scratch.
I stirred my grits and read the Wednesday grocery store flyer I'd propped against the Cuisinart. Prime rib was on sale, but way out of reach for me -- if meat costs more than three bucks a pound, I can't afford it. Russets were on sale for 99 cents a ten-pound bag, carrots were 39 cents a pound, and -- be still my Anglo heart -- Brussels sprouts were a steal at a buck ninety per sixteen-ounce package. Still, while I informed the cats that the gravy train ended here, and they should look forward to breakfast, I considered standing rib, roast potatoes, carrots and sprouts. I longed for Sunday dinner.
* * * * *
I've never cooked the classic Sunday dinner, which is consumed after church in the early afternoon. With typical understatement, the English call it Sunday lunch. In my WASPy household in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, it was the culinary touchstone of my youth. I know it was, too, for the French-Canadian Catholics who made up ninety-eight percent of the population of my town; I could sniff the same seductive wispy tendrils of roasting meat and wild blueberry pie wafting from their windows, the same aromas that filled our kitchen on that special day.
St. James Anglican Church is a tiny historical and architectural jewel, snuggled next to the docks on the St. Lawrence, the very waters that were the kick-off point for Radisson, Des Groseillers, Marquette, Joliet, La Verendrye, Cartier, Champlain, and de La Salle. Name a French guy with a county, river or town (or park or hotel, for that matter) named after him anywhere in North America, and he'd dipped his paddle into my harbor. He mapped the continent, thrilled my ten-year-old history geek self, and filled the vaults of the Hudson's Bay Company with beaver pelts and gold.
We went to Matins because St. James was Low Church. Although Communion was offered every Sunday and Friday at eight, the popular eleven o'clock was the magnificent Matins service, with Holy Eucharist offered only once a month in the featured time slot -- just often enough to keep the Nicene Creed fresh in memory. My church was built by the Recollet Fathers in 1703, rebuilt in 1754, and impounded by the English conquerors after the Seven Years' War. A renovation in 1830 cast off the three-foot thick walls erected for a more dangerous time, revealing the light and grace of late-colonial Georgian interior architecture within.
It was the first beautiful building I'd ever known. Even when we'd checked out the hymns on the board and found them seriously wanting, even when Canon Gourlay preached his driest -- even when Malcolm Moir didn’t stride down the nave in full Highland regimentals -- there were always the tablets on the walls celebrating the lives, deaths and marriages of parishioners who pulled up the kneelers two-hundred years ago. As an eight-year-old innocent, I couldn't help but notice all those Henriettas and Altheas who died before they were thirty were preceded in the cemetery by six children. Sir Isaac Brock, the victor and hero of the Battle of Queenston Heights, the commander who took back Detroit for the British, the man who kicked American ass all the way back to Buffalo, visited his sister in the Regency rectory because she was married to the pastor.
Most thrilling for us kids was the ancient trap door hidden behind the font, so those Papist Recollet Brothers could make a subterranean escape into the Ursuline Convent across the street when the local Iroquois decided that conversion was not an option. The bell rope hung behind it, and my brother in his altar boy black and white pulled it at 10:58 -- the bells chimed as sweetly as they had when George the Third was king.
I am breaking McArthur's Law, but nostalgia for that beautiful church, and the Casavant Freres organ and the Wesley brother’s hymns -- pumped out by Mrs. Kendall, the wren-like wife of the verger -- are the happy incidental melding of history, art, architecture, music and Parish politics that, excepting my family life, were the sweet, savory and spicy of the McArthur I am today. With all due respect, your mall superchurch just doesn't cut the mustard.
My mother was not a regular attender, even by Episcopalian standards -- I think she managed to dodge even the Easter and Christmas services. Daddy dragged his butt out of bed Sunday morning after a late night dancing and wallowing to the quartet from Rigoletto, performed by the band of amateur opera singers on the payroll of the Blue Bird Café. My parents tripped in at three a.m. after a cheap date dancing the bossa nova and criticizing the reedy tenor's take on “Nessun Dorma.” Mummy got a pass – a free ticket allowing her to sleep until 11:00, sip some espresso from the stovetop Melitta, and start Sunday prep. When I turned ten, I introduced myself to the Mixmaster manual and Fanny Farmer. I begged a pastry lesson from my mother, and devoted my Saturday nights to babysitting my younger siblings, rolling out pie dough, gossiping with Joanne Kathan (phone cradled against my neck as I painted my nails) and watching The Avengers. (I didn’t consider this a boring teen Saturday night, by the way, and my parents even paid me the going rate of thirty-five cents an hour Canadian for my services.)
With dessert stashed on the sideboard, Mummy had the time to demonstate how delicious a meat and potatoes dinner could be. The old Dominion Store on rue Des Forges sold prime beef (called in Canada “Grade A,” an appellation stamped into the creamy fat with purplish-blue ink); pork that roasted up tender, not stiff; Canadian lamb; and fresh turkey. She was the mistress of the English savory sauces -- mint, red currant and pan gravy from Five Roses flour blended into pan drippings and meat juices. Today, she's a sophisticated cook -- the kind who always has homemade demi-glace at her fingertips -- but in her early thirties she could stir up a dark-brown, madly meaty gravy with nothing but drippings, flour, water and salt and pepper.
Daddy, Ian, Meg and I shed our boots and scarves in the tiny vestibule, jostling for the opportunity to grab that first smell. We'd impersonate a basket of baby bloodhounds, sniffling, wiggling our bottoms and practically barking for joy. Was it roast beef day, or leg of lamb day or the happy Sunday when the glorious crackle-crusted roast pork hunched on the platter? (Roast pork meant applesauce!) Would it be potatoes roasted in the melted suet or Yorkshire Pud? A handful of Sundays, it was both, an event so miraculous that I can still remember what I was wearing on each of them. My mother was an early carb-counter, the better to slip into the toreador pants and tiny-waisted circle skirts she wore on Saturday nights, who meted out rice by the grain during the week, but Sunday was the feast day of St. Starch. The vegetables came and went as the seasons dictated, but the old faithfuls were carrots and Brussels sprouts -- come to think of it, they’re semper fi on my table, to this day.
I remember only two conversational themes, but they were far ranging and endlessly gripping. We talked about the many excellences of dinner, whether the stuffing was tastier this time than last, the blueberries more tart, the asparagus fatter. Then we processed down the aisle like Sunday morning drama critics, counting the house -- fifty on a good Sunday -- the costumes (had Colonel Moir worn his regimentals -- the kilt, the sporran, the dirk in his sock?) the set (skimpy altar flowers) and always, the music. What a misguided selection of hymns this week! We weren't an overtly religious family (the Anglican way, after all) but we were musical, and being stuck with a couple of stinkers like 242 (Jesus to thy Table Led) or 650 (O Savior when we have no work) -- well, it made us grumpy. After we'd fought for the last piece of pie, Ian and I did the dishes as we did every night, then hit the piano bench. I didn’t grow up in a log cabin or a Victorian parsonage -- we had avocado appliances, The Doors on the turntable and wine with dinner, but we huddled around Daddy as he accompanied our Sunday afternoon sing-along, like the offspring of Louisa May Alcott. We’d sing the hymns we'd wanted at Church, like 401 (Immortal Invisible God Only Wise) or 406 (Guide me O thou great Jehovah), then we'd pull out the secular songbooks – Steven Foster's Greatest Hits, Airs of Old Scotland, and Songs and Shanties of Newfoundland, -- a special favorite.
After a final chorus of "The Squid Jiggin’ Ground", the second half of Sunday was a diminuendo -- homework, napping parents, writing the mandated weekly letters to our grandmothers. I don't remember Sunday supper, though I know we had one. I do remember that sinking of heart as I slipped into bed, knowing that nine hours hence I'd be waiting for the school bus in miniskirt and pantyhose, thawing my thighs in first-period geometry. The cubicle has replaced the classroom, but I slip into bed on Sunday night as bummed as I was when I was sweet sixteen.
My modern Sunday routine is bacon and eggs at noon and dinner at nine, probably a bowl of soup or a home-stretched pizza. I like baking on a Sunday afternoon, so the Sunday meal is likely to feature dessert, not a sure thing on any other night. But if I'm not keeping the faith about Sunday dinner, looming as large as it does in the makeup of the modern gastromical me, why should anyone? I gave over a portion of my Monday in the cubicle compound conducting on-site research.
Here's my demographic sample: fifteen folks, 45 percent African-American, mostly with roots in Mississippi, like most black folks around Chicago, and mostly members of large evangelical churches. The other fifty-five per cent are Caucasian -- and like most white folks around Chicago, Roman Catholics of Irish, Italian, Polish or Hispanic descent. When I asked, “Did your Mom make a big Sunday dinner after church every week?” their eyes lit up -- all thirty orbs.
“My grandma cooked for all thirteen of us kids, her thirty other grandbabies, and the aunts and uncles. It was family visiting day.” When I asked how she'd managed to provide a spread like that and still sing in the choir, Ebony said, “Grandma made everything the night before -- the ham, the chicken, the greens, the spaghetti, the cornbread, the pies, the coconut cake, the lemonade -- and she'd just heat things up a bit.” I broke a sweat thinking about cooking anything, let alone heating it up, in Alcorn, Mississippi in August. Mrs. Ebony doesn’t make Sunday dinner -- they like to stop for Popeye’s on the way home from service.
“Yeah, Mom would put a pot roast in the slow-cooker way before we left for Mass, and I'd peel potatoes when we got home. Always cabbage, mashed potatoes, Jell-O salad, dinner rolls -- stuff like that. She wasn't much for desserts, but we'd always get a pie from Baker's Square. We'd wash the dishes, sit around the table and play cards. It was really fun! Sometimes my cousins would come around.” Janet's crockpot doesn’t get much action these days. “Well, since we go to 6:15 Saturday Mass, we mooch around on Sunday -- I'll do laundry and maybe Jeff will throw something on the grill around four. “
Jim tore a page from his Dilbert calendar. ”We'd eat roast duck and red cabbage and pierogis at Grandma’s after Mass. The uncles would drink vodka shots and us kids would play stickball in the alley when were little, or smoke weed in the park when we got older. It was fun.” And last Sunday? “Well, we go to 6:15 Saturday Mass, and Karen doesn’t like to cook, so mostly I'll throw something on the grill around four.”
Keath mumbled: he was busy deleting personal email. “My Gram used to have us over for ham biscuits and gravy after service, me and my cousins. It was fun, but now? Mom looks at us mad crazy if we ask her to cook -- anytime. There's a soul food place on 73rd where we hang after service, or I'll go to the Golden Corral with some of my homes from Youth Choir.”
I felt less guilty -- even the faithful have dropped along the wayside, at the barbecue grill, the buffet or Burger King. The two last nails to seal the casket on the dining room table -- the final resting place of Sunday dinner -- are women with jobs, and the Vatican’s decision to offer a sneak liturgical preview on Saturday night. Like me, everyone misses the food and the occasion, but like any folks dealing with the dear departed, we smile and talk sweet, and move on.
My co-workers weren’t eager to leave the wake -- they lingered, testifying to Nonna’s braccioles or Gammy’s corned beef. Nostalgic, yes, but I didn't feel wistful, or shackled by McArthur's Law. We were a happy scrum of work buddies, invoking the ghost of Sunday dinners past. Just before we decided that it was time to scatter and look busy, Juwanna poked her head over the divider.
“Hey, I had Sunday dinner yesterday at Big Mama's: my Mom, my kids, my sisters and their kids -- looking so fine in their church clothes. My Mom cooked shit when I was little cause she was a crack ho back then and DCFS placed me with Big Mama. Mom's been straight for years, but she still doesn't cook. We all picked over the collards and my sister made Jiffy cornbread. Big Mama had roast chicken and fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, peach cobbler and caramel cake, just like back in the day. We played cards after dinner and the kids ran around. It's like the beginning of the week for us.”
A wag brought up Mapquest and asked for Big Mama's address. I began to check my voicemail and then thumped down the phone. Juwanna was right! All those Sunday feasts were ushering in the new week, not marking the end of the old. How had I forgotten that? My attendance chart at Sunday School was solid stick-on stars, and I’d received my Confirmation from Russell Quebec on May 31, 1965. I remember the day because the Bishop noted it in my Book of Common Prayer when he autographed it for me, not because it was the date I underwent a spiritual awakening -- in fact, it was down the slippery slope shortly after. I’d quickly outgrown the white lace minidress in which I received my first sip of Communion wine.
During the months leading up to Y2K I'd taken some nerdy interest in the calendar. Back then, I knew that months that start with a Sunday also feature a Friday the 13th, and knew whether Denis the calendar monk was The Short or The Fat. I knew back then that the Biblical Sabbath was the last day of the week -- Saturday -- and that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday (Mark 16:9.) Pentecost, the first meeting of the Christian church, fell on a Sunday, not the Sabbath. (Acts 2:1) The Quakers call Sunday First Day. Heck, who cares if the International Organization for Standardization decided that Monday is the kick-off for the week (ISO-8601) The wonks at the ISO are busy sorting out ANSI E-standards, so they live for Monday when we all log on, pull up our mail and open our calendars. But in Russian, the translation for Monday is something like “Do Nothing Day,” celebrated in cubicles everywhere.
Even agnostics like me can embrace the comforting concept that Sunday Dinner isn't pulling down the scrim on the old week, but starting off the new one with a bang. And I did, back then -- singing out loud, eating a brilliant meal at lunchtime, writing to my grandmothers, setting my hair on orange juice cans and drifting off to bed listening to White Rabbit. It’s sustaining to know that the first day of the week isn't really Monday, but Sunday -- for 6:15 Saturday Mass attendees and fallen-away Episcopalians like me, it’s a wondrous correction.
There are lots of Greek and Italian recipes for roast potatoes in vogue right now -- just cut ‘em up and cuddle them around the roast. Along with the techniques beloved of grillers and roasters that involve nothing but unpeeled baby red potatoes slung on the grill or in the oven, they supply spuds that are fine in their way, but they’re not Sunday Roast Potatoes, which everyone --everyone -- needs to know how to cook. For starch salvation, peel some medium russets (Americans might know them as Idahoes) and cut them in half. Parboil until they're about halfway cooked. Lower them into the pan drippings when the roast has an hour to go. If you don’t have enough drippings to come halfway up the sides, add some shortening or lard -- never the Extra Virgin or the canola oil. When you tong them from the pan, they'll be crispy and golden without, mealy, starchy and soft within. Pass the gravy boat -- that's a righteous start to a new week.
April 20, 2006