Words Simone Spilka
Photos Nat Ma

Sunday Rituals: A Sharable Feast

May 16, 2016

The ritual of hosting Sunday potlucks began while I was living in Australia, when the consistency of a standing weekly dinner replaced the nostalgia for home-cooked meals enjoyed in my childhood home. In a quaint Victorian quietly tucked away in the suburb of North Melbourne, my home consisted of six international travelers, each on our respective journeys to becoming expats. We were American, Indonesian, Canadian, French, Chilean, and Japanese; we carried with us six highly unique upbringings and familial memories around food. Simply by existing in it, our kitchen told stories: of Pablo's famous fresh ceviche, his mother's recipe from Santiago; of Della's morning routine slurping down beef soup with thinly-sliced fresno chili, the typical breakfast dish of Jakarta; of the power of Yuko's humble rice cooker, the glue that keeps tradition in any Japanese household. It was away from our own familiar customs and culturally-imbued constructs of home, that we created a new one.

Every Sunday, the six of us took a 15 minute tram ride to the city's largest produce market, Queen Victoria, and carried back cartons filled with fire-red tomatoes, bags of near-ripe peaches, on-sale kiwis and mushrooms, trays of seafood and meat, and anything we could pack in our trolley to be shared. Around the dining room table and across the island top, we sorted through the treasure trove of groceries and racked our memories for a recipe to borrow from our distinctive home-country cuisine. We drank beers and lit up our garden with laughter, waiting for fish to marinate and friends to arrive. The word got out about our Sunday family dinners and we embraced the opportunity to open our home to people we encountered throughout the week, the ones who left us hungry to know them more intimately. A ritual developed of cooking and dining together: an art form that conveys a sense of togetherness. Around the table, the concept of “other” ceased to exist.

"So today, on Sundays in a new city, when I feel the need to fall in love with my life again, I swing my bicycle over my right shoulder, carry it down two flights of stairs and out the side door of my loft building."

For centuries, groups have gathered to take pleasure in the fruit of the land, share wisdom and refuel their bodies with sustenance. After all, the act of gathering and eating together is one of the most primitive forms of community. Our very existence has been informed by shared food: a hunter offers its prey and a mother gives milk to its child. In her book Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide To Food, Canadian anthropologist Gillian Crowther writes, “This act of eating makes food into the cement for our social relationships, the vehicle to claim our social identity and present our cultural identity, and an investment in our biological selves to gain energy and nutrition."

For over a year, these evenings and moments satisfied my desire for human connection more than just about anything else. What I feared most about leaving Australia was cleaning up the kitchen one last time and saying goodbye to this rich tradition that felt so essential to my sense of being.

So today, on Sundays in a new city, when I feel the need to fall in love with my life again, I swing my bicycle over my right shoulder, carry it down two flights of stairs and out the side door of my loft building. This dumps me on the corner of North 5th and Bedford Avenue, a kitty-corner littered with tourists passing through the 'ultra-hip' neighborhood of Williamsburg with their vintage cameras and lattes to-go in hand. I pause the moment my wheels hit the concrete, letting the reverberation travel up the handle bars through my body. One leg swings over my bike seat as I push myself forward to the nearest Farmers' Market, the homely one in McGolrick Park. I gather fresh thyme and cilantro, mustard greens from the Brooklyn Grange farm stall, curiously-shaped pumpkin, orange beets, and a bouquet of sunflowers when I am feeling particularly inspired.

"At the vague hour near dusk, I ride home to play host, pulling dried fruits and honey from the cabinet in anticipation of a guest who will be inclined to offer contributions from Bedford Cheese Shop."

With ingredients in tow, I travel down to Franklin Avenue to that cozy cafe on the corner, the one across from Word bookstore. I sit at one of its three circular tables in the window nook where parallelograms of sunlight pour through tall rectangular panes, warming the scene on a brisk end-of-winter day. I savor this part of my Sunday routine when I can sit by the hum of the espresso machine and meditate on the meal that I plan to prepare later in the evening for my weekly gathering. I think about my fascinating pollinations of friends—the ones who feel like family, my meditation community, the neighborhood bike crew, the urban farmers, and beyond. A message goes out to familiar faces, and also to new friends whom I want to know, with a cordial invite to join in my humble kitchen at 6 p.m. with ingredients for a dish to prepare together. Some people respond with enthusiasm and others I just expect to show up at my doorstep; both forms of RSVP are okay by me.

At the vague hour near dusk, I ride home to play host, pulling dried fruits and honey from the cabinet in anticipation of a guest who will be inclined to offer contributions from Bedford Cheese Shop, arranging vegetables on display atop the counter, and turning on the record player with music that makes me feel good. To help guide my guests to my apartment, I warm the stove with garlic, letting the familiar fragrance sweep through the kitchen; it is said that of the five senses, smell is the one with the longest memory. I take a long breath in and exhale out the day, winding down entirely.

A knock on the door is followed by an outstretched arm of fresh flowers. "For you, darling," my friend, Kiri, says. She comments on the beautiful afternoon, wondering how we got so lucky to live here. Behind Kiri slowly trails eight other guests, surprisingly punctual and rather serene. She’s quite right, I think: to be here, in this company, in a modest kitchen that now layers the smell of garlic with the earthiness of toasting pepitas and the steam from roasting root vegetables. Introductions of new friends are told as narratives of how we came to be standing here, giving context to the returning and rotating group of individuals in my home.

There is always Clara, my dearest friend who came into my life through an email from afar that stated simply: you two both live in New York and should meet. Ashley, who arrived by way of our shared retreat experience in Guatemala, stands next to Shahed, a local cycling enthusiast, and his high school and college friends, Alex and Ilya. The group quickly moves from strangers to sous-chefs, as preparation for the abundant feast begins. My recently clean island top is laden with prepping hands chopping eggplants into thick-rimmed wedges, dressing purple carrots in honey and cumin, arranging dark, blistered peppers in aluminum foil.

When the vegetables in the oven are replaced by ready-to-be-cooked dishes, we recline with Pinot around the table. On a summer evening, my guests and I gather across from one another on a long, wooden picnic table two stories up with the city skyline in the background; in colder months, we come together around a coffee table in my living room on quilts and back pillows. Soon the plain table, colored only with a bowl of olive pits, fills. With the seduction of late night jazz, potato gratin enriched with warm chevre, pink salmon dressed with chili, and tuna-from-the-can stuffed zucchini boats, we raise a glass to give thanks to all for bringing a piece of themselves to the table. Cooking is, after all, no small feat. Maybe that’s why cooking together—with time—allows our fears in the kitchen to dissipate in place of newly-discovered appreciations of flavor and technique.

"Soon the plain table, colored only with a bowl of olive pits, fills. With the seduction of late night jazz, potato gratin enriched with warm chevre, pink salmon dressed with chili, and tuna-from-the-can stuffed zucchini boats, we raise a glass to give thanks to all for bringing a piece of themselves to the table."

As the 17th-century writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, “to eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” Intelligence, of course, is subjective. One could argue that to eat healthily is intelligence, but these potlucks have taught me that it is eating together that is truly genius. Where a healthy meal is ideal, even an average meal is more nourishing for our well-being and our soul when shared with others.

Around 11:30 p.m., as we are clearing the table, I am deeply contented. In place of what people call the Sunday blues, I feel a delicious satisfaction of having opened my home and facilitated the forming of new relationships—however seasonal they may be—with food as the vehicle. Sunday potlucks are no longer just a routine or tradition that I keep; they are very much a part of my identity. They nurture me, sustain me, keep me full of life. My guests often say the same, which is one reason why they continue to return week after week, hungry to indulge in conversation with other people who also seek pleasure in showing up blind to whom or what they might discover around the table. Because unlike faith or politics, everyone can believe in good food. And what I learned in moving back to New York is that there would always be a kitchen to clean—I simply had to continue to open my front door and welcome people in.