Sunday Dinner, Thanksgiving Dinner

By Jim Tonkowich Published on December 1, 2019

There were about twelve of us in a Lower-Westside apartment in Manhattan having dinner and talking about a possible project at the law school of Catholic University in Washington, DC. I was still a Protestant at the time and that made two of us both trained in theology. The rest, save one, were Catholics, lawyers and law professors. The final guest was an Orthodox Jewish law professor.

The friendly conversation strayed well beyond the project and at one point went to Sunday dinner.

The Jewish professor commented that on the Sabbath (Saturday) after services, “Either we’re going to someone’s home for dinner or everybody is coming to our home.” Then he said, “You Christians do the same thing on Sundays, right?”

Two of us looked at each other across the table and said these sad words in unison, “Well, we used to.”

“To Live Together”

Sunday dinners after church with friends were standard fare when I was growing up. That meant keeping our church clothes on until dinner was over if we were at home and even later if we were at someone else’s home. And the grown-ups sat at the table long after dessert and talked and talked. Nothing earth-shattering. Just good, homey, friendly conversations.

Last year, I learned that the Latin word for “dinner party” is convivium: “to live (vivere) together (con).” I like that. It’s the word from which we get our English word “convivial” meaning friendly, relaxed, and enjoyable. Conviviality is what we all hope for in dinner party. It’s what my parents and their friends on all those Sundays. “Convivial” speaks of home and belonging—and food.

Without using the word, my friend, chef Russell Cronkhite writes about the convivial nature of Sunday dinner in his cookbook Return to Sunday Dinner: The Simple Delights of Family, Friends, and Food:

The Sunday dinner table is the ideal place to build extended family. Church friends, neighbors, coworkers, childhood pals, and college classmates who are invited for Sunday dinner often become cherished friends with whom we take vacations and celebrate special occasions. These are the friendships that endure through challenge and triumph. And Sunday dinner is where it all begins, nurturing an investment far beyond any earthly value, creating a world we are glad to come home to.

“Human beings,” writes Leon Kass in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, “like animals, must feed. Human beings, unlike animals, not only feed but usually eat. But civilized human beings, at least on special occasions, not only eat, but even dine, and sometimes feast.”

Thanksgiving Points the Way

If the thought of a weekly feast seems a bit overwhelming — it does to me — most of us are already used to preparing for that great American feast: Thanksgiving.

What Adam Raport, Editor in Chief of Bon Appétit magazine notes about a food magazine, applies to us all: “Thanksgiving is your Groundhog Day. Same holiday every year. Gotta have turkey on the cover, and there better be mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and cranberry sauce and some sort of side that feels new but not, you know, too new.”

So that pretty much settles the menu and soon family and friends will be arriving. What — aside from the obvious demand that everyone surrender his or her smart phone upon arrival — will move the meal past feeding to a convivial feast?

“With my family?” you object. Why not? As even George and Ira Gershwin knew, the age of miracles hasn’t passed. A bit of prayer and planning can go a long way with all our families.

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This year, Thanksgiving will be with family. We’ll have between seven and eighteen adults plus between five and seven children under seven. (Yikes!)

Dinner is at our home and, as the one coordinating the meal, I’ve come up with the menu — the standards with some bells and whistles — making cooking assignments, but was planning to spend most of Wednesday and all of Thursday morning in the kitchen nonetheless.

I’ve already taken out my Thanksgiving recipe file (yes, I know I’m a food nerd) complete with the menus of past Thanksgiving dinners and have sketched out a preliminary menu.

Thanksgiving dinner needs to be special. Why? Because as Russell Cronkhite notes, “Throughout history special meals have come to symbolize special times, and such meals mark our family lives as well…. When other details of past events fade, the flavors of the food we shared together linger in the memory.”

Sunday dinner does not have to be the memory of a distant past — something we used to do. And I look forward to the day when if asked, “You Christians do the same thing on Sundays, right?” my friend and I will, in unison, answer, “Of course.”

What better opportunity to begin than on Thanksgiving when we’re going to make dinner anyway? Think of it as practice for Sundays.

Wishing you and yours a happy, convivial, blessed, memorable, and most delicious Thanksgiving. 


Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.” 

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