Dinner: A Love Story
by Jenny Rosenstrach
Review by Amber Kuzmick
As every parent knows, it’s not difficult to find a new study or article or expert exhorting you to cook and eat dinner with your children (and warning you of the evils that may befall them should you fail to do so). And as every cook knows, it’s easy to find a dozen cookbooks that promise to take the stress out of making dinner with their quick! easy! make-ahead! five-dollar! 30-minute! recipes. What is rare is to come across a story so intimate and nuanced and empathetic that it seduces you into wanting to make dinner for those you love, that it reaffirms and cements the meaning of those shared meals and celebrates rather than effaces the labor that goes into crafting them. Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: A Love Story, based on her popular blog of the same name, is a book about family dinner that takes as its starting point not health, virtue, duty, or frugality, but pleasure. The book, though it can certainly be used as a handbook or guide, is primarily (as the subtitle indicates) a romance--a tale of how certain experiences with food can enrich the texture of our days and years and alter our perception of time just as much as (and perhaps more consistently than) romantic ardor does.
Rosenstrach, a former editor at Real Simple and Cookie magazines, and a mother to two daughters, made a vow early in her days as a working parent that she would be home to have dinner with her family on a regular basis. She organized her days and nights around this goal with military precision. Her book is a record of both the strategies she employed to reach her goal and the cumulative effects of a decade spent making dinner the highlight and the anchor of her days. It is a memoir in three parts, detailing what family dinner has looked like 1) in the early days of marriage to her college boyfriend, Andy, 2) in the harried days of early parenthood, especially the days of juggling “two under two,” and 3) in the present with two elementary-aged children who are, as she says, “capable of sitting upright in a chair, using a fork semicorrectly, and not spilling their milk all over the chicken.”
The book is a testament to the pleasures of the traditional, the familiar, the ritualistic. Rosenstrach emphasizes that each recipe in the book is a “real dinner” that her family has eaten at least ten times. The images include hand-written recipes on index cards handed down from her mother-in-law, and close-ups from her own “dinner diary,” a notebook where she has recorded what her family ate for dinner every night for the past fourteen (!) years. She implicitly coaches her readers to develop a reliable repertoire of meals that can be prepared without anxiety over whether they will “work” and ideally without consulting a written recipe. She clearly experiences certain dishes --breaded chicken cutlets, porcupine meatballs, vinegary pork chops, chicken pot pie, pork shoulder ragu--as culinary touchstones that both connect her to her past and root her in the pleasures of the present, and is evangelical about the ways in which these old favorites can liberate us from the anxieties of the paradox of choice.
The problem, if there is one, with this line of reasoning is that no cookbook or blog can ever confer on a recipe that time-won aura of nostalgia and familial recognition. In other words, we each need our own set of hand-written index cards that have been passed down through the generations, not to adopt the recipes from someone else’s grandmother. That’s not to say that readers won’t find recipes here that will become tried and true family favorites. For me, it was the salmon salad with green beans, sweet corn, grape tomatoes, purple potatoes, and mustardy vinaigrette. This meal is simple, delicious, healthy (when I’m eating salmon it’s because I want to feel virtuous), and perfectly deconstructable for my 4 year old who doesn’t like different foods touching each other. And if you have to get your recipes from a blogger rather than a beloved grandmother, Rosenstrach is a pretty great blogger to turn to. She inspires trust and warmth in her readers for many reasons but first and foremost with her candid, unapologetic acknowledgement of both the sacred and the profane elements of parenthood. One never for a moment doubts her devotion to her daughters. She adorns miniature pot pies with their initials and devises brilliant strategies to get them to eat (and enjoy) their kale salads. But she also makes no bones about the fact that parenting is hard work, and sometimes kids need to eat a Trader Joe’s frozen pizza for dinner. And sometimes (or all the time) parents need a strong drink right around 6pm. As she says, “you don’t have to completely change the way you cook when you have kids. You just have to change your mind-set. And your expectations. And maybe your medications.”