I really lucked out marrying Joel because he has some of the greatest friends. Literally, my life in Oxford is filled with his hand-me-down friends from college who I claim as my very own. I’ve even enjoyed connecting with his high school friends when we are in his hometown. Today you get to hear from one friend of Joel’s I’ve so enjoyed getting to know online and in person, Josie Ortega. (Doesn’t she have a movie star name?)
This summer when we were driving to see my parents and stopped for lunch at a Chick-fil-a in Nashville and just so happened to bump into Josie and her adorable fam. It was fun to catch up with them over waffle fries and Ice Dreams. One of the things Joel asked them about was how they’d found community amidst the grind of raising small children. When Josie explained their Sunday night routine I KNEW I had to have her guest post and share this magically, genius idea. Plus, her writing voice and personality are just so cool, so you’ll enjoy that too.
I know you’ll be inspired to try a Sunday (or Thursday) Supper sometime soon!
Last year, my husband and I decided to host a weekly Sunday dinner. We invited our cousins and friends, stacked up the soup bowls, and cleaned the bathroom.
After several weeks of this, one afternoon our three-year-old Mary Tobin asked expectantly, “Are friends coming over tonight?” That’s when I knew Sunday Supper was successfully taking root in our family culture. Or it may have indicated that my daughter’s aware that I only start cleaning if/when we’re expecting company. Impossible to know.
In any case, this idea was radical for us—radical, likely vastly different from our norm and personally expanding; and radical, like totally rad because it made our year—in a new city and with two little kids—a lot of fun.
The why and how of Sunday Supper:
We were new to the great city of Nashville, and when I read this article about a family’s weekly spaghetti and meatballs tradition—“Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life With Pasta,” I immediately passed it on to my husband Israel. We knew they’d laid a finger on something we wanted. Though we had various friends and connections in our new city, we longed for more of a community feel. I think it’s challenging, in any case, to make and maintain friendships as adults (no one told me that!). And when kids are thrown into the mix, the logistics are even trickier. We wanted to have a social life with small kids, and had already learned that oftentimes hosting at our place can be easier than loading up the troops to go elsewhere. So, we said: weekly dinner, let’s do it.
We decided Sunday’s the night, since Sunday is the day we want to make special for our family anyway. Plus it’s lower social pressure than Friday and Saturday night. Sunday means family time; it’s rest time. It means church, naps, family stuff, staying off the phone (except to Instagram weekly pics of our daughters for the fam and for the world: #sundayfinest) . . . and now, gathering people to enjoy a meal together.
We floated the idea to my two guy cousins, who were indeed up for getting a free meal on Sunday nights (though for the record they regularly contribute drinks and dessert). So with Nate and Zach as our core Sunday guests, we started inviting other friends and acquaintances.
The rubber hits the road:
I’ve always wanted to have an open, inviting, warm home. I envisioned our kids growing up listening to all the great conversations their parents are having with fascinating visitors from all over the world.
One problem: hosting anxiety.
As a newlywed I’d get really excited about having other couples or friends over for dinner, but whenever the event was upon us, I’d get super stressed, not to mention angry with my husband for not pulling his weight and not meeting my unvoiced expectations.
So the genius of Sunday Supper, for me, is the regularity. With people coming every week, I was forced to deal with myself. I hope that I’ve improved at communicating with Israel, at planning ahead, and at generally not being a box of nerves. This meant both a smoothing out (the process of making a meal, cleaning up, prepping whatever needs to be prepped, and thinking through other needs); as well as letting go (of pride and perfectionism). Since it’s a weekly meal, hospitality necessarily becomes less elevated, more friendly.
Perhaps the best benefit of the regular meal is that the simplicity and the routine go a long way to eliminate “decision fatigue”—a trendy term naming something I always felt. Instead of a nagging, constant low-level stress about how I ought to be better about maintaining my social life, reaching out to others, getting in touch with that old friend, following up on the casual mention of getting together soon (the list goes on . . . )— I was able to mentally file all those under Sunday Supper.
When I ran into a friend/acquaintance/new acquaintance/potential-new-bff, the general “Let’s hang out soon. We’ll email you about some dinner dates . . .” became, “Hey, we usually have my cousins over for [super-casual] dinner on Sundays. Could you come this week?”
I’ve read all about how routine and structure benefit kids, but as with so many parenting topics (eating healthy, anyone?) I find that the adults may benefit just as much as the littles. Food-wise, we could eliminate decision fatigue even further by narrowing down our Sunday Supper menu. The family in the article that inspired us used a passed-down tried-and-true meatball recipe for their weekly gathering, with friends providing salad, bread, drinks, dessert, etc. We settled on serving a soup each week, at least in the fall, winter, and into spring. Not as simple as the same meal every Sunday, but still great: flexible for numbers, easy to save leftovers, only bowls and spoons required. (The summer was even more relaxed: pasta salad, tacos, grilling burgers and hot dogs.)
If you’re like me in wanting to create a more hospitable home, I think my best advice, based on our experience, is to Make.It.A.Thing, whatever that might mean for you.
Weekly hosting may be too much. We actually had a precursor (that I did not come up with!) when we lived in an apartment in DC. along with two other families in our building, we chose Wednesday as the night to take turns making dinner for each other. So two of three weeks, I was off the hook for cooking. The third week I got to flex my weak hosting muscles and gain confidence little by little (again, in a very casual way). Some meals were nicer; some were simpler; and we always had the freedom to ask our neighbors to take the meal to-go if it wasn’t going to be a great night for socializing. When you Make It A Thing, you’ve already signed yourself up. Gotta figure it out the details. Whatever this means about my personality, I don’t know, but it’s effective for me. Those items I formerly had to think about and make a check list for became second nature. I learned practical things like taking out the trash and trying for an empty dishwasher before people came over, and I gained an emotional awareness of what helped me relax and enjoy myself as a hostess (music playing, drink in hand).
[And aside from my personal neuroses . . . ] Another fun benefit of Sunday supper has been watching our little girls interact with various friends and get used to people in our home. It’s also gratifying to realize that my cousins and other friends are cool to help themselves around the house or the kitchen. They know where the cups are, the napkins; they definitely know where the drinks are. This is what we want. Familiarity: a measure of an outcome I hadn’t defined.
Favorites and surprise successes:
Under the heading of wrapping all our social obligations into Sunday Supper, I loved the nights when weekly dinner expanded into a party or special celebration, like Mary Tobin’s birthday (mac and cheese bar
, obvi!) and Israel’s birthday (buffalo wings shipped on dry ice from Buffalo, NY. Gross to me. It’s what he wanted.). The best may have been Easter, when my mother-in-law cooked delicious (and I mean unbelievably rico, rico, que riquísimo)
Mexican food, we invited everybody, and partied with all the Alleluias fitting to the day.
Random hosting tip we learned: whether at a party or at a small dinner, it’s helpful to stop at some point and say something to the whole group
. Could be a toast, like the terrible poem I recited for Israel’s birthday: “You’re fancier than a black car from Uber, and much much nicer than Hans Gruber
;” or simply the prayer before dinner, which, if you’re lucky, will include a robust singing of “Johnny Appleseed.” One night Mary Tobin pulled out the question-a-day book that she likes to do at the end of our weekday dinners. Nothing too deep, but still, going around and answering what your favorite snack is these days led to surprising conversations. Especially when guests may not know each other well or at all, moments like this give them a chance to connect by creating common ground, whether it’s knowing the birthday boy or a shared love for almond butter.
Favorite meals I remember getting gobbled up: chicken tortilla soup
, PW’s chili
, pasta fazool
(we didn’t use this particular recipe; cheated by using my mom’s delicious bolognese sauce that was in the freezer, and throwing in beans, chicken stock, pasta), volleyball pasta salad (recipe below).
Some issues/kinks we’ve run into:
We’re growing in our practice of the Sabbath concept. There have been some beautiful Sundays when the whole family naps after church and lunch. I read a good book, and generally do what I want, and we peacefully prepare for friends to come over. I say yes to treats, cookies, desserts (for me and my kids) because it’s a special day, which has given me some balance in oft-crazed motherhood. (Of course, this depends on being diligent the rest of the week and not eating sugar all the time.)
Cultivating diligence during the week has been a challenge, not only with sugar, but also in the area of cleaning. I tried to get into the rhythm of starting to clean on Friday and Saturday, so that Sunday afternoon merely requires a quick pick up. Often, Papa watches the girls while I
clean meditatively restore order. Or it’s an all out cleaning blitz. My top thing to help me feel like we’re presentable is vacuuming. (And of course cleaning the bathroom is the number one thing you’re supposed to do for company. You can find many tips elsewhere; I will not tell you how to do it. Just doing it is the victory for me.)
And then there’s the issue of sustainability. Hosting a special meal once in a while is great, but to make it sustainable on a weekly basis requires some planning and a good dose of honesty about what’s tenable for us. The budget can get out of control. Some ideas that have helped: taking breaks; not being shy about asking for specific help (bread, salad, drinks, desserts); doing a potluck; adding some hearty, filling, simple (AKA cheap) meals to the repertoire. (Teach me your ways, Kitty!) But, because we decided to prioritize Sunday Supper, we felt alright giving it more room in the budget. It’s a worthwhile cost, though we certainly have room for improvement there.
Other thoughts and confessions:
Now that I’ve blogged
(and continue blogging) about it, I feel self-conscious. I assure you, people coming over are not overwhelmed and impressed and would not call Ortega Sunday Supper a Big Event. But I do think they have a good time. Some weeks have been big celebrations—planned or impromptu; some meals have been delicious, some were ad-hoc potlucks, and sometimes the “test kitchen” recipes turned out not to be keepers after all.
My insecure hostess is dying inside, and that’s good because I want her out! When I shoulda/coulda done a better job cleaning, when I’m watching to see if people get seconds, and analyzing why—I have to remind myself. People are here and it’s OK if they see my laundry. These are our friends and family and it’s OK to break the cardinal rule of dinner parties by using them as guinea pigs for a new recipe.
One early summer Sunday, we’d done an acceptable to average job of cleaning up. Our master bedroom was the one door I’d closed just to keep things presentable. But two of our friends had come straight from a full day of church and graduation activities and were ready to shed their nice clothes once they arrived to find us grilling and lounging around the back yard. And so, with a deep breath, I led them into the No Man’s Land of our embarrassing bedroom and supplied t-shirts and shorts. Guess what? I’m pretty sure they didn’t care about our laundry or whatever. That same evening, our neighbors from across the street joined us and busted out their corn hole set, complete with track lighting (who knew?!). Back yard party time.
We’ve taken plenty of Sundays off, for other scheduled events, travel, etc. Summer turned out to be a natural hiatus. And I anticipate that we’ll tweak, change formats, and/or take a break this fall as our family goes through some transitions. Even if Sunday Supper is never as fully realized as it was this year, I will value what it’s taught me. And the fact that we as a family embraced a vision for how we wanted life to be and did something to make it that way? Chalk it up in the WIN column!
Now, what else do we want to do? What’s important to us? Who ought we show hospitality to? Who’s looking for community? How can we make our group more diverse—age, race, background, etc? Teach us, God, and show us the way to go.
There’s almost no better feeling than Sunday night, after cleaning up and the girls are in bed. The house is pretty well picked up and orderly for the week, thanks to our cleaning blitz prior to dinner, whether that was right before or in plenty of time. We’re pleasantly tired, maybe even a good exhausted, and happy after hanging out with friends. PJs on, time to chat with my husband, settle in, watch Downtown Abbey. Or Silicon Valley and Veep, depending on the season. Seriously, it’s the best.
Volleyball Pasta Salad
This is one of my favorites, named for those magical high-metabolism days when we’d scarf down a bowl or two of pasta salad before volleyball practice, just as an afternoon snack (with extra ranch). I searched my gmail for the recipe and am copying what my mom sent me as a newlywed. As you’ll be able to tell, she knew I needed very specific instructions. It’s a great make-ahead warm weather dinner, and we always include grilled chicken.
Cook 1 pound of pasta – bowtie (farfalle) or corkscrew (rotini) are good – in salted water in a large pan.
The last half of the cooking, add a cup to a cup and a half of thin sliced carrots. If you use the matchstick cut carrots, they will only take about 2 or 3 minutes.
The pasta should be slightly firm.
When you start the pasta, take 1 or 2 cups of frozen peas out of the freezer to thaw.
I try to put the can of 3 Bean Salad in the refrigerator and the peas in a bowl with a paper towel under them to drain. That way everything is chilled, and if you are making it the same day, it helps chill the salad.
Drain and marinate with balsamic vinaigrette (I like Newman’s Own) – 8 oz. You can do this in the morning or overnight – 3 or 4 hours at least.
When you are getting ready to serve, add a small can of drained black olives, sliced, along with a drained can of 3 bean salad. (Some brands I have seen are Read or Haddon House) and the thawed peas.
Some people add some red bell pepper or a small jar of pimiento; that’s mostly for color.
Stir in about 1/2 cup of Ranch Dressing or more if you think it needs it.
Add plenty of fresh ground pepper and taste to see if it needs seasoning salt. I think I usually use 3/4 cup of dressing.
You can add a cup and a half or 2 cups of shredded chicken, or sometimes people add small shrimp (can get expensive) or artichoke hearts.
YOU LOVED HER, RIGHT?! The Hurdles are game on for a rotating Monday/Thursday night option…you in?