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Narrative Essay About The Most Memorable Meal

A few weeks ago we sent out one of our bi-monthly E-Newsletters with a request for stories written by our readers on the theme of The Family Dinner. The contest was inspired by The Family Dinner cookbook by Laurie David, a book full of not just delicious recipes but also (and we think even more importantly) full of great reasons to sit down and enjoy a home cooked meal with loved ones. The winning story would receive a signed copy of the cookbook for their kitchen library!

We we're thrilled to receive a number of entries full of great stories–from fiction to memoir, some made us laugh, others made us teary and some inspired us to call our moms. So thanks to all you readers who entered for your inspired tales of how much dinner traditions can really mean. Here is the winning story!

Sunday Family Dinners by Courtney Gilbert

With more than a decade between the eldest and the youngest children in my family, growing up there were few things we held in common. On a regular day, there was only so much my older brothers could take hearing about my most recent boy band crush or school girl drama. Nor did I have much interest in their discussions of computers or the political matters that were beyond the understanding of a tween girl.

On Sundays though, an hour or two before sunset, a transformation occurred in our home. The long table in our kitchen, whose job day to day was to hold mail and unfinished homework, as well as be a quick pit stop for filling empty bellies, shifted into something much more. Dressed nicely with linen placemats and napkins, the long table became the setting for a family ritual that somehow, in an almost magical way, quieted the differences between us just enough so we could share a meal and get to know each other. 

My father at the head of the table was generally a serious man, but became the jovial story-teller for the evening on Sundays. With every juicy steak he served up there was a cheesy joke as its side. He would recount stories from his younger years, or sometimes those of our grandparents’. No matter what the story, there was always a punch line, which would generally draw an exasperated sigh from our mother, signaling that perhaps this story was somewhat exaggerated for comedic effect.

In perfect balance to his meaty steaks and cheery chatter, my mother served up her potatoes and salad along with a verbal newsletter of the comings and goings of family and friends. Birthdays, upcoming celebrations for new babies or marriages and recent accomplishments at jobs were all shared across the table, as well as the tastier tidbits of information that she was hearing through the grapevine. She had her children’s full attention this one night a week, so it was important she share the information with us now as to not risk hearing later, “Mom – you never told me cousin Johnny was getting married?!”

Sitting between our parents at either end of the table, my three older brothers and I would split time between our parents’ conversations and that of our own. I cannot even remember our specific conversations, whether it was music or sports or politics, but I know that we actually talked to each other, about something! And little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we became more than just siblings, we became friends–with each other and with our parents.

The phrase “creature of habit” could very well have been invented in our family. Sunday Family Dinner’s menu every week was (is) steak, potatoes and salad. On occasion and by request only, my father would grill up some fish or burgers along with the steak. But the steak, potatoes and salad always remained the principal of the meal. It was the consistency, something comforting you could count on each week, that brought us back home no matter what and made Sunday Family Dinners a success.

The four siblings are now split between two cities in two states, so Sunday Family Dinner goes to the town that Mom and Dad claim as home for the time. Over the years we’ve added spouses and nieces and nephews to the long table. My father repeats some of his stories from years ago and my mother finds herself forgetting which set of children she has already shared certain family updates with – do the Austin kids know this or was it the Fayetteville kids she told? But little by little, Sunday by Sunday, we continue to share our lives around a long table filled with simple good foods and friends.

We were so pleased with the variety of entries we received for our last Inviting Writing, about food and dating—they were sweet, funny, endearing, sad. Let's see if we can top it with this month's theme, a topic that anyone should be able to relate to: memorable meals. If it was the food itself that made it memorable, that's fine—make our mouths water sharing every delectable detail. But it's also acceptable—maybe even preferable—if the reason it was memorable was only tangentially related to the food. Maybe it was memorably disastrous (Dad burned breakfast, making you late for your driving test, which you subsequently failed), or was connected with a momentous event in your life (your first meal in your own home, for instance). Set the scene and let us feel whatever it was that still lingers in your memory, for better or worse.

As a reminder, submissions should be true, original personal essays somehow inspired by this invitation. Send yours to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Most Memorable Meal” in the subject line by this Friday morning, March 25. We’ll read them all and post our favorites on subsequent Mondays. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you’d like that included).

I'll start.

When In Rome by Lisa Bramen

I had the most memorable meal of my life (so far) about 15 years ago, on a summer night in Rome. It wasn't the fanciest food I have ever eaten. It wasn't the most impressive feat of culinary skill; I don't even recall every dish that was served. It certainly wasn't the worst meal I've had—that dishonor may belong to a plate of lukewarm spaghetti swimming in orange grease, served by a grumpy waiter about an hour after I had ordered it. This was also in Rome. A travel tip: unless you are dining with the Pope himself, get as far away from the Vatican as possible before attempting to find a decent bite.

Here's some more advice: If you have the good fortune to be 24, a recent college graduate with a three-month Eurail Pass (acquired with a deep discount through the job you just quit at a corporate travel agency), make sure one of your stops is Rome. There, look up a former co-worker named Lisa (no relation to yourself), who moved there to start her own travel business. Even though you don't know her well, she will be happy to show you around. She will take you to off-the-beaten-track places, for instance, a church decorated entirely with human skulls and crossbones. She'll introduce you to local delicacies like pizza rustica—thin-crusted squares with little or no cheese—and candied chestnuts. She will know the best spots for gelato.

One night she will invite you to dinner with her Italian friends, Francesca and Paolo, and another man whose name you will not remember. Although they will attempt English conversation with you, they will speak Italian most of the time. You won't mind—all the better to soak in the atmosphere and the pleasurably melodic sound of the language, stripped of its meaning. Dinner will be at a small trattoria on a side street far from the tourist attractions. You will be seated outside; it will be a warm summer evening. You will drink wine.

The others will order food for the table to share. Each dish will be unfamiliar to you, exciting: fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with a soft cheese and something salty that you realize too late is anchovies (but, even though you have been a vegetarian for years, you will not care because it will be so delicious); orecchiette with broccoli rabe.

For dessert, you will order some lemon gelato to bring back to Francesca and Paolo's apartment. You will sit on their lovely terrace, eating gelato and drinking small glasses of pear brandy. You will feel giddy from the alcohol, the setting, the company.

At the end of the night, the nameless Italian man will offer you a ride back to your hostel. It will be on a Vespa. As you buzz through the streets of Rome on the back of his scooter, you will feel as if you could launch yourself into the heavens like Diana, the Roman moon goddess. You will remember this feeling forever.

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About Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

Read more from this author | Follow @lisabramen

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