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Warmest Regards: Lessons from my grandmother

This week someone on social media asked if anyone could recall the days when instead of going out to eat families joined together for a big home-cooked meal.

That question sure did spark a ton of memories for me.

I remember when Sunday dinner was a feast and a time for family togetherness.

Back then our extended family all lived in the same town.

My memory of walking home from church brings to mind wonderful smells wafting from homes where Sunday dinner was something special.

I don’t know which was a bigger treat, the special Sunday meal or the camaraderie of the entire family that gathered at Mom’s house.

Many families did that every week. For special occasions like Mother’s Day there were even more relatives coming to the feast.

Then we gathered at my grandmother’s humble house. All five of her grown daughters and their families crammed into her little house.

The family constructed an immense table from beer cases covering with white table clothes. The table was so long that it started in the kitchen and extended through the house. My seat was next to the front door.

My grandmother was a matronly woman with a strong sense of priorities that started and ended with family.

Family was her world.

She came to this country from a little village in Calabria, Italy before I was born. But even after being here for a few decades she still lacked a great command of English.

Yet, she made it clear how much she loved all of us.

If we only ate one plate of pasta she would say, “What? You don’t like my spaghetti?”

I was just a kid back then and didn’t know anything about entertaining. But what I learned from my grandmother still shapes some of my views.

My grandfather worked part-time at the county court house and was fond of bringing the three judges home for one of Grandma’s spaghetti meals.

One day when I went to visit while she was getting ready for feeding the judges I was horrified when I looked at the way she set the table.

No two dishes were alike. Her dishes were old with fine little cracks one could see if you looked closely.

I told my grandmother she shouldn’t use old, mismatched dishes to serve the judges.

She laughed like I was I was being silly. “Duh,” she huffed. “They are not coming to eat my dishes. They are coming to eat my pasta.”

I looked in her china closet to see if I could find better dishes. No, they were all authentic antiques with defects that showed their age.

It didn’t matter to her and obviously it didn’t matter to the judges. They came back again for more of her cooking.

Now that I’m older looking back at those days I am amazed at how stress free she appeared to be. She just took everything in stride without any apparent anxiety.

I contrast that at how we are today when we do work up the ambition to entertain. First I stress about what to serve, trying to find something I think my guests will enjoy.

While I definitely enjoy cooking, it’s stressful planning every detail so I can avoid any problems.

I also put a lot of time into setting a nice table. Of course I want everything to match. Nice dishes, place mats and interesting serving pieces usually figure into my company preparations.

Do I stress myself out?

The honest answer is yes. I could never be as loose as my grandmother about company.

I think planning keeps getting harder because people have so many things they can’t or won’t eat. It’s hard to know that ahead of time.

I had one near disaster when I neglected to ask one couple if they had any food allergies. I did ask if they liked shrimp but I forgot to ask about the scallops.

Fortunately, they came right before I added the scallops that would have made them ill.

Not many people can relate to my grandmother’s relaxed style of entertaining. In fact, my friends tell me the older they get the more they don’t want to fuss with making meals for company.

“There’s an easy answer,” said my friend Jane. “Everyone should go out to eat. That way it’s not work for anyone.”

I think she is right that today many people prefer eating out. That way everyone can order what they want and no one needs to labor in the kitchen.

“Going out to eat” was an unfamiliar concept when I was growing up. When I had my own family we went out to eat for special occasions. But it was far from routine.

When you do something repeatedly it isn’t special any more.

While I go out to eat much more than I did when I had my family at home I try to restrict how often I do it.

Most of the time I do enjoy cooking for my husband. He is generous in his praise of my cooking and I do like to please him.

Using food to please others must be in my Italian genes. But I often give myself time off from fussing in the kitchen. The older I get, the more time off I take.

Over the years how have you changed the way you feel about cooking?

Contact Pattie Mihalik at newsgirl@comcast.net.