Any given Sunday dinner
Saturday, October 18th 2014, 10:00 am EDT
I was 20 years old when I left Lebanon for Australia, moving to Sydney to go to college. It was my first time away from home, and, as it turned out, I wasn't quite ready for the independence: Though I'd grown up with a superb cook for a mother, I didn't know how to fry an egg.
During my first months in Sydney, I subsisted on microwavable supermarket meat pies and burgers and fries from the greasy spoon around the corner. I felt disconnected from this food, such a far cry from what I grew up with. I missed the
, a tangy soft cheese my mom made from yogurt, which she'd serve with olives from trees my great-grandfather planted, and season with wild mountain thyme that we'd foraged ourselves. I missed her
, minced lamb pounded with fresh marjoram and mint, mixed with bulgur and drowned with olive oil.
Most of all, I missed how those meals in Lebanon made me feel, how they required my participation, and how they connected me to my family. Australia and its food felt shallow by contrast. My meals in Sydney seemed to have no provenance, said nothing I could decipher about the land they came from, and what's more, they came ready, with no need for effort on my part. These meals made me feel like more of an outsider than I already was.
After a few months, I started to make friends with other students who lived in my neighborhood. I connected with Elaine, a cute Australian girl who invited me to her home to meet her parents one weekend. "We're having Sunday roast," Elaine said, beaming. Thinking of those burgers, chips, and meat pies, I held no great hope for the visit.
We arrived at Elaine's parents' home, a small farmhouse outside of Sydney, just as the meal was almost ready. We hurried through the introductions, and Elaine slipped away to help her mother in the kitchen. I sat with her father at the dining table for what felt like a year of strained silence. Then, the rich smells of caramelizing vegetables and roasting meat took over the dining room.
The awkwardness dissipated as Elaine and her mother brought in platters piled high with baked pumpkin and sweet potatoes, boiled Brussels sprouts and green beans, and jugs of gravy and mint sauce. And then came the center-piece, the roast leg of lamb. I was dumbstruck as it was set before me. I had never before seen lamb served in such primal on-the-bone grandeur.
Back home, lamb was one ingredient of many: flaked into pilafs large enough to feed a family of ten (and maybe several neighbors, too); stewed with okra and tomatoes; minced and fried with onions and sprinkled atop hummus. In contrast, served as it was to just the four of us, the Sunday roast struck me as a particularly opulent tradition. Elaine's father carved the leg, and we crowded our plates with slices of lamb and all the trimmings. Each element was delicious on its own, but, for me, the combination of it all was a revelation, and to this day, I think of that lunch as the first real meal I had in Australia.
After that, I started accepting invitations to Sunday roasts at every opportunity. As I found my place here, making friends with fellow students and, later, co-workers, there were a lot of opportunities. The weekly Sunday roast is a British tradition, brought by colonists to Australia in the late 18th century; it was common practice to put a roast to cook before leaving for church, come back home to a hearty meal, and extend the leftovers through the week that followed. But here in Australia, it's become an institution in its own right. It's the most important family meal, the week's main opportunity for a get-together.
As I visited family after family, the basic scheme became apparent: A central piece of meat is served with roasted starchy vegetables, boiled green vegetables, gravy, and a sweet condiment, like mint jelly, cranberry relish, or applesauce. Within these parameters, what ended up on the table each time varied tremendously. Some of my hosts, like Elaine's family, hewed closely to the traditional "meat and two veg" British formula. Others brought their own heritage to bear on the meal, with an Italian
in the place of honor at one home, Portuguese-style chicken at another, and, at the table of a French acquaintance, lamb cooked with apples, served with boiled shrimp and basil-infused mayonnaise, a sort of Gallic surf and turf. The variations, I realized, were endless.
About five years ago, after countless meals at the homes of friends, I finally decided to tackle the roast myself. My first try (not the wisest choice, in retrospect), skinless chicken breast, was a disaster: It turned out terribly dry and favorless. The next, a pork loin roast, had a stubborn sheath of skin that refused to crackle no matter what.
My good friend Stephanie assured me that quality was only optional: "A proper Sunday roast is soggy vegetables, packaged gravy, and mint sauce out of a bottle. And the meat has to be overcooked. None of that 'just pink' gourmet stuff." Hers, I realized, was a nostalgic though generally accurate view of how most homes would have had their roast in the not too distant past, before epicureanism took Australia by storm. Even for an accomplished cook, the Sunday roast is a feast of so many moving parts that it takes an obsessive to get it all just right. Without careful planning, roasting a leg of lamb in the same oven with potatoes might mean that one of the two is going to overcook (usually the lamb); and while you're making the gravy, it's easy to forget all about the broccoli and beans as they boil away to mush.
Even so, determined to get it right, I kept at it, and eventually found my footing in the kitchen and made the meal my own. I came to cherish Australia's richly marbled, flavorful saltbush-fed lamb, which has a generous layer of external fat that keeps the meat tender while it cooks. I learned a few tricks to get the timing right, taking the meat out to rest prior to cooking the sweet potatoes, and putting it back in the oven to warm it up again just before dinnertime. And most important, I realized that, although a roast for one could be one of life's great luxuries, the meal is best if the cooking and eating are done with company. Sharing the work in the kitchen, and the meal after, was key to that feeling of communion I remembered from my childhood meals in Lebanon.
Elaine and I are married now, and we do a roast every Sunday, I taking inspiration from memories of my mother's cooking, and Elaine doing the same from hers. With our two-year-old daughter Sara hungry and underfoot, we divide the work between us. If we're pressed for time, we'll do a quick chicken roast, rubbing the thighs and drumsticks with garlic, salt, and olive oil, and serve it with
, an emulsion of oil, garlic, and lemon juice that is the traditional sauce for Lebanese chicken shawarma.
If we're feeling more ambitious, we'll do ten-hour lamb shoulder seasoned with sumac berries, while Elaine makes her mom's rosemary gravy to match. We stir-fry green beans in pan drippings with garlic until they begin to caramelize, and then toss roasted potatoes with fresh coriander and lemon and serve them with tahini
, a nutty sauce of garlic, lemon, and sesame paste. And when we sit down to eat every Sunday after hours of cooking and anticipation, we never care if the lamb is a little overcooked. In the end, it's not the meat that matters.