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How Cooking Dinner Can Change Your Life

For a number of years, I cooked dinners to serve a small church congregation after a short Sunday service of evening prayers. This was in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my home borough, on a street that runs wide under towering plane trees, with a view of the East River to the west. We ate in the moldering parish hall behind the church, off long folding tables we set with plates and cutlery, napkins, candles, sometimes flowers, always bottles of water filled from the sink in the kitchen.

The crowd varied in size. There could be a dozen people, or three times that: strangers, neighbors, people who sat quietly on the fence between the two. Families arrived and departed on tides pulled by their children’s activities, homework, interest. The homeless came on currents of need. Here suddenly would be someone new to the city, there a woman who’d lived on the block her whole life. You might see a person you hadn’t seen in six months, or serve an old friend, or sit next to a couple eating silently, impervious to smiles and offers of seconds. There was no religious component to the meal, no spiritualism beyond the fellowship of it. (Or there was. You brought to it what you wanted.) The parish hall on Sunday nights was most like a bar, an actual public house, a place to go, a habit.

My children enjoyed these dinners, though I know they were loath to admit it. They disliked all that preceded them, as children often do. “Church ought just to be dinner,” my oldest said once, at dinner. I smiled in response, and if I had been a better parent, I might have said that this is already the case, at least in a church built around the sacrament of the Eucharist: the consecration and consumption of bread and wine. But the kids were off to clear the tables by then and asking for ice cream.

I don’t cook at that church any longer. But the idea of meal as ritual has stuck with me. And so I still cook Sunday dinners, albeit on whatever night of the week I can manage, serving family and friends at a regular cadence. I believe it makes life better for all involved.

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