Papa Marzano says personal goal setting is about more than SMART design and accountability refs. It’s about being honest with yourself when you describe what you really want, why it’s valuable, and how it benefits you and those around you. So while I may have all of my 2013 ambitions laid out SMART goal style in the dork-checkered pattern of an Excel spreadsheet, here are my Them Dinners resolutions in three simple steps:
RULE #1: Be Clear About What you Really Want! [Emotion creates motion rule]
RULE # 2: Focus On Taking Action that Produces Results toward Goals [Keep “the main thing the main thing” rule]
RULE # 3: Take Action Today [‘Tis better to ship now than ship nothing at all rule]
That feels like a pile of ambitious nerd I just dropped in your e-laps. However, I’m also pretty sure it’s how you resolve to do some shit. We shall see won’t we?
So what’s on the menu for Sunday? A couple of pasta sauces, homemade pasta, a veggie, and some homemade bread. I haven’t figured it out beyond that yet. And that feels amazing.
Them Dinners 2.0
Here’s the new normal:
I hope you’ll follow me as I try my best to chronicle this reboot experiment. While I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional food porn photo—especially if one of my camera-savvy friends shows up—it promises to be much more of a social and genuine experience than anything in recipe culture, and certainly anything on Food Network.
Getting Back to Family Meal
My housemate works at a restaurant here in Philly called Talula’s Garden. He helps with daily prep, but his primary cooking responsibility is to make family meal for the back of house staff. He has used that post to learn as much as he possibly can about the building blocks of cooking: stocks, breads, sauces, etc. Yeast starters and rising dough have started hanging out in the corners of our fridge. More than once I’ve come home to the smell of fresh bread and feint traces of flour on the counter, and wished I’d arrived earlier to catch him in the midst of his art. And perhaps that he’d wiped the counter a little better…but that’s neither here nor there. His dedication to complete mastery of the simple things is inspiring.
It’s had me thinking on where Them Dinners went wrong. It was supposed to be about family meal. Specifically, family meal for those of us without families of our own yet, who don’t want to put off the social (soul-cial?) benefits of regular homemade meals and broken bread. So how is a true family experience different from what Them Dinners became?
I am much bigger fan of goals than resolutions. In 2013 one big goal is to set Them Dinners right. That means a commitment to weekly dinners, an expansive guest list welcoming of friends new and old, a focus on learning the fundamentals of cooking, and trust that most of my family of friends don’t want to be that uncle who brings nothing and falls asleep on the couch after dinner. Though, like family, he’s welcome too.
next… Them Dinners 2.0
Hi, My Name Is Them Dinners and I Have a Problem.
Them Dinners, as it existed when I hosted guests for the last time in September 2012, was sick. Conceptually. So much so that I couldn’t even bring myself to post pictures of the lackluster gnocchi, or sit down to write something about table conversation, which felt forced despite a genuinely wonderful group of friends. Something felt disingenuous, and I think we all instinctively felt what it was. It had become a production. An aspiring Food Network show without a video camera (though I considered getting one, an idea that rightfully appalled my friends). Life imitating art imitating life.
But like most insidious and destructive behaviors, it had a lot of support. Well-intentioned enablers. People loved the idea, and the execution seemed logical enough: First five guests and no more to keep the table small and prices down; recipes ahead of time to inform guests with allergies or preferences; and a blog to capture the fleeting creations and conversations of a dinner party. I suppose the end result looked like something worthy of some praise, and it was often fun. Quietly though, the means were compromising the end. Old friends were turned away because the seating cap had been reached, sometimes by new acquaintances. To go above it meant dinner served on laps, an unmanageable kitchen, and last minute runs for extra ingredients. Against my extroverted nature, I was stingy and judicious about who I added to the email pool of potential guests. Dinners were also becoming increasingly expensive and labor intensive, often requiring a full 12 hours from shopping to table. This is not to mention the joyless drudgery that had become composing menus, authoring evites, and producing engaging blog content.
And the cooking. Them Dinners was supposed to be an opportunity to develop and broaden my cooking skills. Yet I found myself as much a slave to recipes in July as I had been in February. Food Network and food porn culture has imprinted this mantra on us: food should be exciting, daring, sexy, and always surprising. I have combed websites for the tools to make this performance happen again and again, all along retaining very little understanding of the art or alchemy. There is a time and a place for these daring leaps out of your culinary comfort zone, but consistent family meals are not meant to be events, let alone magic acts.
There is no excuse for that pun. Well except maybe this:
Gearing up for a Sunday potluck down the street, I decided to try my hand at this recipe for sweet potato gnocchi. Fortunately, I tested it out the night before and realized it was complete RUBBISH. Sweet potatoes are an amazing thing, but they are also very (wait for it) moist. The amount of flour called for here is way out of whack. Two yams v. 2.5 cups of flour? No one wins. My test batch Saturday night dutifully followed the instructions and came out of the boiling waiter looking like soggy, swollen, lymph nodes of pasta. The raving reviews and comments baffle me. I can only assume these people have never had gnocchi (or food) before. Now, I’ve only made gnocchi a couple of times, but I have enough tactile knowledge to be dangerous, and this just felt wrong. And kids, if something feels wrong, it probably is wrong. Tell an adult.
Attempt two came just hours before the potluck, so I had one shot to figure out what went so horribly wrong with the first batch. With a few tweaks to the recipe, this simple dish went from limp dumplings to sweet pockets of potato lovin. Here are some other changes to the above recipe I would recommend:
Just another example of the most important cooking technique: trusting your senses. If it feels like good gnocchi, and tastes like it’s on its way to good gnocchi, it probably will become good gnocchi. This dish got swarmed and was gone within minutes of setting it on the table.
Did I mention it was a pumpkin carving potluck? Happy Halloween everyone!