I did not expect to find myself weeping in the coffee shop six pages in to reading a cookbook. Nevertheless, there I sat, welling up over my latte while reading Jenny Rosenstrach’s How to Celebrate Everything. One would not think that a book about celebrations would be cause for a public meltdown, but what I quickly realized was that yes, this is a book about finding cause for celebration, but even more than that, it’s a book about ritual and family. Like any sentimental creature, I’m a sucker for both.
Rosenstrach writes the blog Dinner: A Love Story, a catalog of stories about and recipes for meals meant to be shared around the family table. Her first book, by the same name, and her second, Dinner: The Playbook, draw from one central premise: that eating together as a family is a good idea, even when cooking dinner for one’s family is a labor of love, and that certain meals are always going to be hits. She and her husband, Andy Ward, have expanded on this idea in their monthly Bon Appétit magazine column, The Providers, as well.
While these first two books are more utilitarian — Dinner: The Playbook is literally a game plan for how to develop the happy habit of family dinner down to weekly meal plans — this third book gets at something a little deeper than dinner. Arguably, this is a book about the thing that first spurred Rosenstrach’s (and Ward’s) hunger to cook and feed their family with intention to begin with, a desire to build and reinforce family identity and, through that identity, to revel in the joy that the most everyday of rituals can offer us. Celebrations, even little ones like a weekday lunch with one’s dad or a date for dinner and a movie at home, offer us a chance to reinforce and demonstrate our love.
That’s what got to me, sitting in the coffee shop, reading Rosenstrach’s words about how walking their kids to the neighborhood school bus in the morning had become something to celebrate with a barbecue at the end of the year. Suddenly, I was caught up in nostalgia. In her description of “the parents, some clutching coffee mugs and wearing ski jackets over pajamas, some suited up,” I saw my own mom and dad. In her story about how chili makes the best pre-trick-or-treating spread for goblins and grown-ups, alike, I remembered my family’s Halloween tradition of cooking kielbasa and sauerkraut — perhaps to scare neighborhood children with the aroma?
It’s still a book of recipes, of course, but in the tradition of the best sort of food blogs the recipes are always cached within memoir. They appear within the text when called upon in the narrative, not rigidly locked in to a predictable parade of holidays. The stories are loosely arranged into four headings: holidays we didn’t invent, our family rituals, birthdays, and family dinners. While this might not be the book to pick up if you’re looking for Valentine’s Day inspiration, you know, now, it’s a book that lends itself beautifully to a start to finish read. Rosenstrach’s voice as a narrator is imminently likable. She comes across as someone who might strive for perfection, but who has reasonable expectations for what that means in practice. To that end, these aren’t color coordinated, Pinterest-perfect party spreads. Indeed, a recipe for Hubba’s Christmas Cookies shows sugar cookies slathered with icing and bedecked in several colors of sprinkles. Truth in form, they reflect the more-is-more approach that the vast majority of children take to cookie decorating. In this way, these recipes and stories offer an intimate little window on how one family marks occasions throughout the year.
Rosenstrach’s stories reveal a deep hunger to build these food traditions, whether around big, widely-observed holidays or holidays of their own making (including sleepover meals, “birthdaypalooza,” and the rule that Pop Tarts become acceptable breakfast foods when on vacation) as a sort of a familial identity: this is who we are, these are the foods we eat, and this is why. That’s not to say at all that the feeling of the book is exclusionary, on the contrary, it’s constant refrain is welcoming: this is what works for us, you should try it, too!
More than that, I’m confident that the experience of reading Rosenstrach’s prose, in getting to know her, Andy, their daughters, and their extended family could help readers zero in on opportunities for celebration in their day to day experience, and on forgotten food memories from their own childhoods. Rosenstrach’s admissions that, “like many parents, we learned the value of a good bribe early on” had me recalling ice cream bars at the laundromat, rewards for being good when my sister and I were four-ish and six-ish. Her stories about their vacation rituals and her recipe for “Post-Beach Grilled Cheddar and Apple Sandwich with a Side of Coke” made me think of Thrasher’s fries with malt vinegar on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Explaining her family’s cultural heritage while braiding challah with her daughter made me recall my parents teaching us how to eat peanut stew with fufu, a dish they occasionally made to share with us something of Cameroon, the country where they met as Peace Corps volunteers. All of her descriptions of family dinners inspired in me a craving for the most ordinary of beef-and-bean tacos, a dish that remains among the most beloved and oft repeated my own family’s suppers.
I wonder what these stories would bring up for you.
I think that’s the real success of this book, honestly. Yes, Rosenstrach is an excellent writer and I believe that the stories and recipes in How to Celebrate Everything would be compelling to uninitiated readers and longtime fans of Dinner: A Love Story, alike. But more than that, I think that whether you come from a rich tradition of your own rituals — familial, religious, cultural, or otherwise — this is a book that invites you to see them a little bit more objectively, to recognize them for what they do in your life and to invest in them accordingly. Even better than that, this is a book that invites the development of new traditions and the invention of new rituals. It’s a call, if you will, for celebration.
Photos by Chelsea McNamara