It's perfect: family at the table

Writer celebrates the joy of cooking

September 01, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Spare rib bones, stripped clean and stacked like cordwood. A pile of paper napkins, crumpled, greasy and red with barbecue sauce.

That's what Lauren Groveman, mother, wife, cook and author, sees when she conjures the perfect family dinner.

Her husband and teenage children adore her poached spare ribs and each has his or her own bowl of her homemade barbecue sauce for dipping. And the mess they make tells her that she has, once again, pleased her favorite people with food.

"That mess in the middle of the table - it is just such a satisfying feeling," said Groveman, 46.

Groveman loves to cook. And she wants you to love it, too.

So she has written The I Love to Cook Book: Rediscovering the Joy of Cooking for Family and Friends (Clarkson Potter, 2004, $35) to help you and to inspire the celebration of Family Day on Sept. 27, when the nation's families are urged to sit down to dinner together.

"What keeps a woman from loving to cook is the fact that it has always been about someone else," she said from her Larchmont, N.Y., home.

"We need to shift from, `Oh God, what do they want from me now?' to `Cooking for them makes me feel capable and appreciated.' "

We might actually enjoy cooking if we were not overwhelmed by our own resentment of the task, Groveman said.

Every day we face the same tedious question: What do I make for dinner tonight?

What will everyone eat, and how do I get it on the table quickly enough to hold off the fussing?

With both parents working and evenings crammed with activities and homework, dinner has become something to be gotten through.

How can anything done under these circumstances be pleasant or creative?

Groveman suggested that the answer is to work the problem backward.

If the family cook feels creative and capable and is filling the house with good smells and good food, the family will gravitate to the kitchen - what Groveman calls "a magical room" - in happy anticipation.

She believes that a cheerful and satisfied cook and a kitchen filled with inviting aromas will tempt the family to the table and re-establish the endangered family dinner hour.

A number of national studies have shown that regular family dinners can inoculate adolescents against smoking, drinking, drugs and early sexual activity.

The dinner table, researchers have concluded, is the place where teens are reminded that they are part of a family and that other members of the family care about them and their well-being.

To that end, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, under former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, has created Family Day. Families are urged to simply eat dinner together.

Groveman is a national spokeswoman for Family Day and her recipes are on its Web site, www.casafamilyday.org/pages/recipes.html.

She's perfect for the job because she has been preaching for years that the family dinner can fill an empty place in children that lies upward and to the left of the stomach.

"To come home from school and find the kitchen draped in homemade pasta ... I mean, what a memory that can be," she said.

"That has to replenish something in children of the 21st century."

Groveman's own mother did not inhabit the kitchen. The family cook, a Southern woman named Mabel, was there instead. Even so, Groveman recognized that the food smells that greeted her after school made her feel good, and she recognized that was important.

As a young married woman, she was career shopping while she waited, often discouraged, for children. Cooking was the answer to the question "What would you do even if you were not paid for it?"

More important, she found in cooking that sense of nurturing that infuses her approach to the task today.

When children Ben, Julie and Jessica came along in quick succession, she began to cook in earnest as a way to be productive and creative.

The more she cooked, the better she got at it. The better the food, the more her family made her feel appreciated.

It was a perfect circle of food and love.

She took classes and then taught. Then she began to do television and radio cooking shows.

Suddenly, she was no longer a mother who cooked, but a working mother with no time to cook.

Groveman addresses this in her cookbook with recipes for a pantry full of mixes, sauces and spice blends that will help busy cooks get to "homemade" in a hurry.

On Sunday afternoon, she might make big batches of her buttermilk pancake mix, which also works for cupcakes and layer cakes. Or her biscuit mix, which works for scones, or her muffin mix, which can produce five different kinds of muffins.

She makes her own barbecue and teriyaki sauces in big batches. She freezes soup stocks and makes a new batch of her garlic confit oil every week for bread dips and to drizzle on meat and vegetables.

The recipes in her book use pantry items, such as marinara sauce or fajitas seasoning.

To be Lauren Groveman's kind of home cook can be daunting, and she knows it. She tells people to take it slow at first.

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