Oh man, Pete Wells! I was so sad to read that this week’s “Cooking with Dexter” column (“Busy Signal”) is going to be his last for the New York Times Magazine. I’ve always appreciated how honestly he writes about the way food and family intersect — as you’ll read in his swan song, he never pretended cooking dinner for his kids with a full-time demanding job (in addition to writing this column, he’s the editor of the Times Dining Section) was easy or in any way regular. His wife has the more flexible work schedule so she’s the one who keeps the weeknight dinner train running. And most of the time, Wells concedes, he isn’t there for it. Or, when he is, he sometimes finds himself spending a harried half hour dredging fish fillets in homemade breadcrumbs instead of doing what he should be doing: heating up something from the freezer and chilling out with his kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in this position. It happens less now — now that I’m the wife with the flexible work situation, and now that the kids are older and not as whiny about wanting to eat right this second — but when it does, I think the same thing: Who am I supposed to be connecting with here? The kids or the chicken thighs? Which inevitably leads to Tomorrow night is Trader Joe’s Pizza Night.
Perhaps sadder than this being Wells’ last column was the resigned tone with which he wrote it. It doesn’t appear there are any solutions to the family dinner problem short of passing a law requiring parents to leave work at 5:00. (Even that idea, he later decides, is not such a good one.) Here’s where I disagree. Perhaps there are no blanket solutions, but if you want to figure out how to connect with your family over dinner (that’s ultimately why you’re here right? Not because you’re trying to solve an “abstract but urgent societal problem?”) there are ways to do it. Maybe not every night, maybe not even for a few years from now when your kids are less likely to make a mockery of your pork chops with kale. When they’re old enough, you can start pushing their mealtime a little later to make an all-parties-present dinner more likely. You can allow yourself the Trader Joe’s pizza moment whenever you need it, if dredging and mincing is going to be the soul-crusher that prevents you from sitting down with your kids the next night. You can make weekend dinners really count, not just by prioritizing those meals as non-negotiable family time, but by thinking about what dishes lend themselves to second lives later in the week. (Last week, a blessed stash of Great Grandma Turano’s Sunday meatballs were revived from the freezer as these sandwiches above.) And when you can’t get home from work in time to do any of this, you can remind yourself that Pete Wells has a hard time, too. Then you can try again tomorrow.
Cheesy Meatball Sandwiches (Serves 4)
In a medium pot, reheat meatballs in their sauce, covered, over low heat. Slice a baguette horizontally, then slice into four sandwich-size pieces. (Smaller ones for the kids, bigger ones for grown-ups.) Broil or toast for a minute so bread is slightly crunchy but not brown. Place meatballs on halved baguette pieces (be sure to add sauce), then place that half on a cookie sheet, topped with slices of fresh mozzarella. Broil for about a minute until cheese has melted and bread is toasty. Close sandwiches and serve.