Ode to The Family Dinner

Once or twice a year I am overcome by a mounting sense of desperation over what to feed my family. I just start coming up blank more often than I’d like. (I probably should just be keeping a dinner journal to help myself remember what has and hasn’t worked. That would be a good idea. It would be fun to use a 5-year journal.)

Last Spring I bought a copy of The Family Dinner while I was looking for answers. I ended up getting a lot more than I hoped for. While the recipes are great, I hadn’t counted on such a serious dose of inspiration and guidance for staging family dinner.

Family dinner sounds easy. Make dinner. Eat together. But the book opened up a new world of possibilities to me. We’ve always actively avoided after-school activities that cut into the dinner hour. But we still needed an extra push to make family dinner a strong part of our family’s routine where we would eat together but also linger afterwards. The book showed me how it’s done. It reminded me how inspired parenting and building a family can be. Along with her own examples, David shares stories from the likes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mario Batali about what their family dinners were like as children.

As a result of my reading the book, we started memorizing poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. Along with the list of recommended reading from the book, we have some general and nature reference books. These are kept by our dinner table at arm’s length and have proved useful when my kids started asking crazy questions like “What is electricity?”.

When I first read the book I was on a mission to make family dinner happen every night of the week. Now I just go with the flow and am happy if it happens more nights than not. We’ve become slackers in the poem memorizing department too. But the bottom line is that the book has had a huge impact on the health and happiness of my family. We’ve started building memories at the dinner table. Hats off to Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt!

Book Review and Giveaway: Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Do you sometimes peek into other peoples’ shopping carts at the supermarket? Kathleen Flinn, a recent graduate of the Cordon Bleu,  took shopping cart voyeurism to the next level when she cornered a woman because her cart was full of highly processed foods. Before you knew it they were hanging out with the supermarket’s butcher learning how to cut up a whole chicken.

Flinn’s book about her ensuing experiences is called Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks. This book chronicles her quest to heal the disconnect between people’s desire to eat well and their inability to function comfortably in a kitchen.

Apparently, some folks are two generations removed from anyone who regularly put a home-cooked meal on the table and they don’t have the time to teach themselves. Basically, it doesn’t do one much good to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma if you don’t know how to peel and chop an onion.

Inspired by her supermarket encounter, Flinn gathered a group of volunteers interested in reclaiming their kitchens and thoughtfully guided them through a culinary education during which they mindfully tasted salt, learned how to hold a knife, and how to use flavor profiles to make meals on the fly among many other things. Recipes related to specific lessons are included at the end of each chapter.

Kitchen fundamentals like how to prepare a roast chicken, cook vegetables, and make a cake from scratch are the kind of things we should be teaching our children so that the next generation won’t be so useless in the kitchen. There were plenty of moments in this book when I was shaking my head and made a mental note to be sure that my kids know how to cope in the kitchen when they grow up. Flinn’s students colorfully illustrated how much of a hole can be created in people’s lives in the long term if they can’t perform an act as basic as being able to properly feed themselves and their families.

I’ve made Flinn’s adaptation of No Knead Bread about fifteen times already. I used to pay $5 for fancy artisan bread boules. Now I make them myself and they cost us about 60 cents a pop. I love them.

Thanks to the folks at Viking, I’ve got a giveaway copy of Kitchen Counter Cooking School for you today.  All you have to do is enter a comment below and tell me who taught you how to cook? (if anybody) and I’ll use one of those random number pickers to select the winner. Comments will close on October 7, 2011 at 7pm.

Update – October 7, 2011: And the winner is Staci Rae! Thanks to everyone for your comments. I love hearing from you.