Living with a young child is like floating on your back in the ocean, completely open to the sun, the wind, and the waves. The movement and delicious wonder of it all lulls you for a moment, and then suddenly you’re struggling desperately, wondering if you’ll make it through to safety.
Before I got pregnant, I was a passionate, stir-crazy cook who never, ever made the same thing twice. I lived like that as much as possible: Freelancing so I’d never have to spend my days doing the same job over and over again, rearranging the furniture so often my husband would trip if he got up in the night, and pitying the poor souls who admitted they usually ate chicken because it was easy and tasty. And then I got pregnant.
Growing up, I never once observed the Sabbath. And I assumed I never would. I was raised by individuals who felt so traumatized by Hebrew school that they vowed to found a new race of Jews who couldn’t be bothered. When I married Aaron, who grew up kosher, we skirted the issue for a while by eating vegetarian. Then we just went for it: bacon. Making spaghetti carbonara with bacon and cheese was a comfort to me. It meant we could do what we like, we would do it together, and I would be free of the oppression of my foremothers, who baked challah, roasted chicken, and set a nice table every Friday night because they had no choice, right?
Maybe Chicken Isn’t So Bad
Then we started a new tradition of baking challah, roasting chicken, and setting a nice table for Friday night dinner. It began with our best friends, who also happen to be our downstairs neighbors. They have a baby and a toddler, and we have a toddler, so no one’s going out on Friday nights, anyway. “Why not make it a nice night in?” Steph reasoned. Inspired by Hannah, her Orthodox co-worker, Steph was craving a reliable Friday dinner. Roast chicken, say; and since she loves bread, Steph thought it would be fun to bake a challah. Aaron adores roast chicken. So much, in fact, he almost needs his own personal bird. And I am a woman who goes through life looking for opportunities to have dinner parties. Parenthood has been tough for me, a collector of patterned china trapped in a life of sippy cups.
Steph’s husband, Chris, is a fan of eating dinner, but if this was going to be some sort of religious thing, he cautioned he was out. “Don’t worry,” we assured him that first week. It’s just a chicken dinner. With wine. And challah. Maybe some candles.
With the three baby monitors lined up on the sideboard, we sat down. Steph had made a beautiful challah, though she added a little whole wheat flour, which I saw Aaron note with dismay. She had also splurged for black truffle butter. On challah? I hadn’t realized I was expecting a traditional Jewish meal, but that butter seemed so strangely out of place. Then I tasted it. Oh my. Truffle butter on challah is, I assure you, nothing short of spiritual.
A Reliable Meal
Months later, we’re still eating the same meal every Friday. If we were trying to get together over pasta, say, or even fish, I’m pretty sure the whole thing would have come apart by now. But roasting a chicken is a primal activity. I’d claim it’s in my genes, but what working mom wouldn’t embrace a big meal that you make by throwing a pan in the oven? In an hour, the house smells schmaltzy in the best way possible, you have an ample platter of salty, juicy, crisp-skinned chicken pieces to serve, plus gravy, bones for soup, and leftovers for your toddler’s lunch the next day (and by the way, pan drippings over noodles or rice are very lovely, too).
We often salt the chicken the night before (yes, I realize we’re basically koshering our farm-raised organic bird sans rabbi. If you buy a kosher bird, don’t bother with the salt.) I plan side dishes that take no effort. Steamed green beans tossed with pesto or tapenade. Roasted asparagus with garlic and lemon. Fingerling potatoes or radishes thrown in the roasting pan with the chicken. If we have salad I make a jar of shallot vinaigrette earlier in the week. Dessert is fruit and cookies. Fridays are not for kitchen calisthenics.
Sometimes Steph or I get home in time to make challah, which our toddlers enjoy doing with us. Otherwise, Steph lines up with the Orthodox Jews at a Borough Park bakery during her lunch hour for a loaf. The truffle butter comes out every week, and slathered over that first slice of soft, sweet, eggy bread, it brings a satisfying hush down on us all. Ah, we made it through the week. Tonight, all we need to do is enjoy a good meal.
Some Traditions Just Make Sense
These dinners surely have deeper meaning for Aaron, who came home to Sabbath preparations at the end of each week for most of his life. But I doubt we’ll keep them up forever. There will be Chinese take-out, out of town guests, vacations, later bedtimes for the kids, and who knows, maybe one of these years Aaron and I will actually get a sitter and go out on a date. But for now, I feel more committed to our little household tradition with every passing Friday.
Knowing what’s coming at the end of the busy, exhausting week, looking forward to sharing a familiar meal with familiar companions, reflecting on what the heck is happening, and feeling proud that, once again, we pulled it off beautifully; well, that’s big. No wonder so many people have been doing this for so long.
Photo from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.