It was still the highlight of the week a generation ago. In the northwestern Ohio town where I grew up, almost everybody looked forward to the midday meal on Sunday. In this part of the world, regardless of your social status, a noon meal was “dinner.” Anything you ate after 5 p.m. at home was “supper,” but if you went to anything other than a diner for your evening meal, the menu probably read “dinner.” So what exactly has happened to Sunday dinner?
How It Was
Whether a family consisted of churchgoers or not, Sunday dinner was institution. Empty nesters were apt to pay to stuff themselves at one of the few local restaurants open on Sundays. Those with kids who still ate at home were in for their own kind of feast, which usually took hours to prepare.
My mother was best described as challenged when it came to all things culinary. One of four daughters of a woman who was a winner in an early Pillsbury Bakeoff, she never really was very comfortable in the kitchen, especially since she was one of the few moms who worked outside the home.
Nevertheless, she put on a show on Sundays. She made a point of buying meat or chicken from the butcher each Saturday. Sunday dinner meant a big beef or pork roast, complete with roast potatoes, vegetables, rolls and butter (not margarine) and dessert. The last course was anything from a cherry pie she had baked to cookies or hand-packed ice cream my dad had picked up the night before from the town’s “best” ice cream parlor.
An entire fried chicken might appear on the table with fresh tomatoes, green beans, and corn from the garden. One thing was certain: Whatever the main course was, it always came with potatoes.
The Way It Is
In many if not most parts of the country, Sunday dinner has become a tradition of the past. Whether they’re headed for church, shopping, a trip to the library, or yard work, the typical American family is often outfitted in jeans.
The midday meal is lunch, and it’s probably just as likely to be eaten at a fast-food restaurant as during an excursion to a family restaurant. As a matter of fact, the concept of a sit-down restaurant meal on Sundays appears to be largely a time for friends to catch up, for a couple on a date, or for empty nesters following a routine.
So why did the Sunday dinner make an exit? Here are the most common reasons:
Everybody’s working these days, often more than five days a week. In a family where everyone’s too busy, anyone old enough to drive is racing for car keys on a Sunday. Our schedules are so goofy that even when the entire family goes to church, it doesn’t raise an eyebrow to see the members arrive in more than one vehicle.
Automation has made it easier and easier to cram more things to do into our lives. Most people are much less likely to use that crockpot for a special meal than to do a meal in six minutes in a microwave. They’d rather use the time to try to catch up on sleep.
Next to rent or a mortgage payment, the biggest expense for most families is food. For the cost-conscious, roasts at more than $5 a pound probably aren’t going to be on a supermarket list. It’s a lot quicker and significantly cheaper to grab that eight-piece bucket of fried chicken for $4.99 or two cans of chili on sale for $.79 each. The average American doesn’t get excited about $3 avocados either.
A friend decided to make a special Sunday dinner a few months ago. After picking a new recipe, she headed off to the supermarket with a list of spices not in her pantry. She spent nearly $30 on the condiments alone.
Sugar and Fat
Many Americans have learned to love them. Why cook some pasta and a salad when we can zip through the Golden Arches for a complete meal heavy with fat?
Have you noticed how big a “medium” fast-food soda is these days? Could that be because we’ve learned to love the sugar in it that much?
For many people, the opposite is true. They don’t want to partake of the heavy roasts and fried chicken that used to mark the traditional Sunday dinner.
They’re health conscious and would never dream of sitting down to such a big, heavy meal for Sunday dinner.
It’s sweeping the country. Witness the millions who are transfixed by TLC’s Extreme Couponing.
If you use coupons extensively, you probably quickly figured out that there aren’t too many available for beef or pork roasts. The whole point of using coupons to get stuff for free or to lower a family’s grocery bill is that you have to buy items for which you have coupons.
These days, the most common food items are frozen dinners, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, spaghetti and other sauces, rice, and desserts. Most of them aren’t the stuff of a traditional Sunday dinner.