Bridgette A. Lacy remembers the fine Sunday dinners cooked by her grandfather at his home in Lynchburg, Va., where he grew cantaloupes so sweet, she said, “they tasted like he had poured sugar in the ground.”
She called him “Papa,” and he was the best cook she had ever known.
He called her “his sugar girl.”
To have a seat at his Sunday dinner table was an experience to behold.
Each Sunday, when Lacy was growing up, her family − including her cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles and parents − would gather at her grandparents’ table, where they were served meals cooked by her grandparents. Those dinners included fried chicken, potato salad, yeast rolls, freshly snapped string beans, delicate coconut pies and a dessert her grandfather called “Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake.”
Lacy, a food writer based in North Carolina, has just published “Sunday Dinner,” a beautiful collection of essays and Southern recipes that will make your mouth water with each turn of the page. Lacy captures the essence of what those Sunday dinners meant for generations of people in the South.
“Sunday dinner,” Lacy writes, “was not just a meal on the plate; it was a palette of rich colors and textures. In my family, Sunday dinner meant that the table was set with ironed linen. The good china and the silver sat alongside the gold- and silver-aluminum tumblers that kept the sweet tea nice and cold. The fried chicken and butter beans were seasoned to perfection.”
Careful attention was paid to each detail in her grandparents’ kitchen, where food was cooked from scratch, spices were savored, freshly picked greens were simmered, canned goods were clearly labeled, utensils organized at the ready, blackberries turned into sweet cobblers, children were raised to behave, and dinners were mixed with soul.
“Sunday dinner was the artistic expression of my grandfather’s love for his family,” she writes, “and it was a masterpiece.”
Lacy’s description of her “Papa’s” meal preparation evokes the best kind of food writing and reminds this reader of the kitchen magic evoked in the novel “Like Water for Chocolate.”
Lacy paints this picture of her grandfather’s creations. “I can still recall Papa’s potato salad. He would trim the potato salad with sliced eggs going around the bowl,” she writes, “and then sprinkle the dish with paprika. It was a thing of beauty.”
Her grandfather, she says, “taught me the first bite is with the eye. Anything you need was already on the table. When you sat down, you didn’t get up until there was no more room for another tasty morsel.”
Lacy reminisces on the memories created at the Sunday dinner table, the conversations, the manners of the children who spoke with “please” and “thank you.”
Sunday dinner was a tradition, a real Sabbath away from the worries of the work week, a place with lace, and folded napkins, surrounded by family.
Sundays had their own rhythm − a day to cook un-harried dishes. The dinners were treated with a kind of reverence.
“In my grandparents’ home, Sunday started with my grandmother singing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ as she fried eggs and bacon on the gas stove,” Lacy writes.
“Sunday dinner had more prestige,” Lacy writes. “The telephone seldom rang; everyone knew it was dinner time.”
Several years ago, I wrote about my family’s tradition of Sunday dinners − of my own grandmother who hopped around the kitchen on her one good leg to cook dinner for her family. The recipes in “Sunday Dinner” bring back good memories of sweet potato casseroles, collard greens and peach cobbler.
In reading Lacy’s “Sunday Dinner,” my one wish was that her book had been delivered with a real, hot Sunday meal to savor as I traveled back in time with her, imagining what it might have been like at her grandparents’ table in Virginia.
The elegant cover of this “Savor the South” cookbook published by The University of North Carolina Press, features a fine china plate, a cloth napkin, a fork and flowers.
Lacy encourages readers to continue Sunday dinner traditions − and for new generations to create their own.
“Sunday dinner today could mean inviting other singles and small families to a potluck with everyone bringing a dish,” Lacy said.
“It’s a chance to connect with others and nourish the body and soul.”
Lacy includes tips for a new cook. “Use real china and linen,” she writes. “What are you saving it for?”
“Set the table the evening before.”
“Serve dinner early in the afternoon between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.”
“Remember, Sunday dinner is more than a meal, it’s a state of mind. That means there should always be room for another set of hands in the kitchen, and room for another seat at the table.”
The cookbook includes 50 recipes to make your own Sunday dinner — including classics and meals inspired by Lacy’s family: “Grandma’s Fried Chicken”; “Mama’s Meaty Crab Cakes”; “Papa’s Picnic Ham with Jack Daniels and Cloves” ; “Sunday Yeast Rolls”; “Iced Peach Tea”; “Big Jimmy’s Coconut Pie”; and of course, “Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake.”
For more about “Sunday Dinners,” click here.