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Essays

Manifesting an Italian Dinner Night

One day I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I stumbled upon a pasta sauce ad that caught my eye. Usually, I skip right past sponsored content, but this was different. The ad pictured a bird’s eye shot of a dinner party with a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in the center of the frame. The guests happily scooped noodles—the thickest I’ve ever seen—and meatballs onto their plates. Immediately, my craving began. My mouth salivated. The meatballs seemed to shimmer in the setting’s moody, yellow light, and the noodles made me want to sink my teeth into a forkful. This simple, ten-second ad had induced a deep desire—a craving that boxed noodles and jarred sauces could not satisfy. I wanted a bowl of homemade spaghetti and meatballs with an authentic tomato sauce. After replaying and unmuting the ad, lively Italian dinner music played while the clinks of plates and background voices added to the ambiance of the video. As staged as the setting may have been, the lighting and the environment felt real, and my craving for spaghetti and meatballs evolved into a need for more. 

I wanted to have an Italian dinner party. 

I only heard about these dinners from my Italian friends and had seen them in movies, but I knew exactly what I wanted. Traditional Italian dinner parties center around the idea of reconnecting with friends and family over the shared love of food. Having enough food to serve the large company of people in attendance is pivotal to these parties. I’ve heard that these kinds of dinners have a start time but no end and can last for hours so long as the conversation (and food) is good. Alas, the only problem is that I’m not Italian. With spaghetti and meatballs on my mind, I went over to my friend’s place to hang out. 

“What’re you thinking about?” Izzy asked as she opened the door, immediately recognizing my deep concentration.

“I want to have an Italian dinner party,” I blurted out, almost stunned at my response. “I want spaghetti and meatballs. The real homemade stuff with homemade pasta sauce. But the only problem is we don’t know any Italians.”

Izzy stared back at me with a blank expression, then shifted her face to a look of confusion. “You do realize I’m Italian, right?”

After I apologized for my forgetfulness, Izzy quickly adopted my desire to host an Italian dinner party. 

“I haven’t been to one since before the pandemic,” she remarked, explaining to me how her Italian family used to host large parties that included her extended family and longtime friends. We sat down and made a list of people we’d invite. We settled on 18 people: three, six-man rooms. My room would bring the garlic bread, our friends’ room would bring the salad and dessert, and Izzy’s room would host and make the spaghetti and meatballs. A date was set for the following Sunday, and I could hardly wait.

The day before the party, Izzy called me over to help make the sauce. “The most crucial part of making this dinner authentic is the sauce,” Izzy said. 

We gathered together all the ingredients and got to work. I chopped the onions and garlic while Izzy prepared the tomatoes. She instructed me to saute the onions and garlic until they were fragrant, then let them simmer in red wine. We added in the tomato paste and tomatoes, and then mixed the pot. We topped it off with fresh basil, lemon zest, and some other spices.

“Nice! We’ll let this pot simmer for a few hours. We’re pretty much done for the day,” Izzy said proudly.

I was shocked. “That’s it?” I asked, confused at the simplicity. “How come we made it a day early then?”

Izzy chuckled, and happily shared her family secret. “The sauce isn’t done yet,” she explained. “Once the sauce has finished reducing tonight, I’ll leave it in the fridge overnight so the flavors deepen.” Izzy explained that tomorrow afternoon she will put it back on the stove, add more spices and salt as needed, and then complete it with the drippings from the meatballs. Once finished, the sauce will be rich, complex, and ever so delicious. 

The next day, I eagerly made garlic bread with my roommates. We timed it perfectly so that we would pull the bread out at 6:55 pm, and then immediately walk across the hall to Izzy’s room in time for the dinner to start at 7 pm. As I was welcomed into the room, I was met with the pleasant aroma of savory meatballs and the rich tomato sauce. I turned on the TV and put on a playlist of cliché Italian dinner music that I had curated earlier in the week, and chatted with my friends as they came into the room. We sat down at the long table, and ate our salad as an appetizer. Izzy served everyone heaping bowls of the handmade spaghetti she got from Eataly that morning, poured on the homemade pasta sauce, topped that with the meatballs, and finished them off with freshly-grated parmesan and a slice of garlic bread.

As I happily chowed down on my bowl of Italian deliciousness, my heart swelled. My desire for homemade spaghetti and meatballs had been fulfilled. Not only that, but I got to have an Italian dinner party. I fondly thought back to what started this all: that pasta sauce ad on Instagram. While that sponsored post might not have moved me to buy the jarred sauce—I can’t even, for the life of me, remember the name of the brand—it inspired this amazing evening. So to anyone reading this who wants to host an Italian dinner party themselves or take the leap into something unfamiliar, I say to you: fallo e basta

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Essays

My Apartment Cooks Family-Smile Meals, You Should Too

Everyone has that one thing they can look forward to each day, whether it be going on their daily jog, seeing their friends, or even returning to their own comfy bed. I look forward to a good meal.

Food has always been the highlight of my day, keeping a consistent rhythm to my life. Every single evening I know that I can come home to a good dinner, thanks to a carefully crafted dinner schedule with my roommates. My apartment cooks family-style dinners, with enough portions to feed six people. It might sound daunting to cook for so many people, but it is incredibly helpful for three main reasons. 

First, family-style dinners save me so much time during the week. It is very convenient to come home from a busy day of classes to a hot meal ready to be eaten. Rather than scrambling to find leftovers in the refrigerator to eat for dinner, one of my roommates will be cheffing it up in the kitchen. You budget an hour of time once a week to cook for five others, and then you are rewarded with five cooked meals during the week. Sounds like a fair trade to me! 

Next, these family-style meals allow me to eat a wider variety of foods than I normally would. If I was left to cook for myself 7 days a week, I know that my diet would most likely consist of boxed mac and cheese, ramen noodles, and takeout pizza during my busy school week. Instead, I can rely on my roommates to choose what dinner I will be eating most nights. It is an absolute luxury to not only have dinner cooked for you but have the option of what is being served chosen for you. We all know the phrase, “I’m hungry but I don’t know what to eat,” and the family-style meal stops these words from being uttered into existence in our house. It’s always a joy to look at the whiteboard hanging in the kitchen and read what I’ll be having for dinner that evening.

Jon draws his inspiration from whatever he is feeling at the moment, generally trying to remain on the healthier side with a good amount of vegetables and proteins in his dishes. Just this past week he cooked a pasta stir-fry with an abundance of greens. Similarly, Jameson cooks mainly vegetarian meals, subbing meat for a plant-based alternative in his buffalo chickpea enchiladas and teriyaki tempeh. Andrew specializes in homestyle Asian cuisine, trying out new recipes from shrimp tempura and Cantonese steamed cod to simpler dishes like miso soup. Peter loves to cook and always makes a dish that he thinks will turn out delicious. How much time he has dictates what he’ll be cooking, if he has to study for an exam he might make a quick recipe like Sazon-seasoned chicken thighs, or if he has more time he might make a more labor-intensive dish like carnitas (which takes upwards of six hours to cook). Jason isn’t the biggest cook, so he might make a simple dish like grilled cheese or fried rice for the house. 

Like many of my roommates, I love to play around and experiment with recipes I find online. I cook every Tuesday, which is the one day of the week where I have only one class. I can then put time and effort into my dinners, whether it be replicating Babish Culinary Universe’s Swedish Meatball recipe or going rogue with a recipe-free creamy chicken and green bean dish. It is so rewarding to introduce the completed dish to my roommates, almost like I’m on an episode of Iron Chef. While I love the praise, I also cherish the feedback they give me. I always ask them what they think could be improved upon, and if they’d ever like to have it as a meal again. The whole part of being a chef is learning from others and consistently practicing and trying out new things. If I didn’t receive constructive criticism that my dish needed more salt or would taste better next time with spinach over green beans, I’d never improve as a chef-in-training.

Photo courtesy of Recipe Tin Eats

Finally, there is something sacred in the act of eating as a family unit. Having everyone assembled together for dinner each night helps us bond and catch up with one another. No matter how busy you have been that day or how many classes you’ve had, it’s nice to see each one of my friends around the table and chat over a good meal. While it might be hard some days to make the scheduled dinner time, the trouble is worth the reward of sharing a meal together. Eating breakfast and lunch alone or with one other person makes sense, but dinner is different. Dinner is not only about sharing food with friends but time with them. Environmental activist Laurie David famously said “a great dinner must include not only yummy food, but good conversation,” and I couldn’t agree more. Even if our dinner conversation consists of jokes in light-hearted conversation, time spent with one another is invaluable.

Eating family-style meals has become a custom in my apartment that I take pride in. Whenever I tell anyone that my roommate and I eat dinner together every night, I’m usually met with shock and admiration.

“That sounds so nice,” they always say. “I wish my roommates and I did that.”

To which I respond, you absolutely can.

Cover photo courtesy of Eat This, Not That

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Essays

Caffeine Fiends

Take two steps into my apartment’s kitchen, and you might assume that you’re walking into an underground local coffee shop operated by college students. You would be mistaken, but you’re also not entirely wrong to assume so. 

In my apartment of four roommates, we have three coffee drinkers and eight different coffee machines. That’s three French presses, two Keurigs, two Vietnamese drip coffee filters, and a Nespresso machine. While we like to drink the beverage, we differ in our particular preferences and our rituals surrounding coffee. 

Ian, the only non-coffee drinker of the house, despises the smell and taste of coffee and finds our drinking habits ridiculous. “There are two main things I don’t understand. First: can you people decide what coffee machines you use and don’t use?” he said, admitting that he passive-aggressively puts them away on the top shelf, so it’s hard for the rest of us to reach. (Ian is the tallest in the house at 6’3”, so that’s no harmless action.)

Due to miscommunication on all of our ends when moving in, we now have an excess of coffee machines. Peter and Sean each brought their Keurigs and French presses because they assumed no one else had any. A week later, I received a French press as a housewarming gift from my girlfriend. We continued to expand our brewing horizons as the semester went on. Peter got into Vietnamese drip coffee, first purchasing a small, followed by a large, drip coffee filter. Not to be one-upped, my girlfriend surprised me with a Nespresso machine for Christmas, which I keep in my room for special occasions. 

Ian also doesn’t understand the appeal of coffee or the ritualized nature behind it. “The second thing I don’t understand is: aren’t you supposed to drink coffee in the morning? There is no time in this house where someone isn’t drinking coffee,” he explained.

Sean wakes up every morning to a cup of coffee, and he describes it as an essential part of his morning routine. “I’m completely dependent on coffee, without a doubt,” he admitted, sharing that he probably drinks way more coffee than the average person. 

As of recent, the ever-present coffee smell in the kitchen has dissipated. While Sean used to brew French presses every morning, he realized that he needed more caffeine. Now, he stops at Starbucks before class and orders a large latte with three espresso shots to get him through the day. During finals season, he goes a little haywire on the coffee consumption, confessing, “I might have upwards of around eight shots of espresso a day.” 

Peter, as of the last month, has completely stopped drinking coffee. He would drink two cups of coffee a day at his peak, but he began to realize that he was dependent on caffeine. Without a cup in the morning and the late afternoon, he wasn’t able to wake up or do work. Peter stopped drinking coffee cold turkey, supplementing his intake with less-caffeinated teas. He swears that he hasn’t felt better since.

I am the last coffee brewer in our house. While Sean drinks his coffee solely in the morning, I, on the other hand, reserve my coffee-drinking for the second half of the day. I drink my first cup around 1 p.m. when I begin to fall into my afternoon slump, and my second cup of coffee after dinner around 7:30 p.m. I know it might sound crazy, but this allows me to have enough energy to stay up and work on my assignments while still going to bed by 1 a.m. I might sneak a third cup of coffee somewhere in between these times, depending on the day and how I’m doing. As if the caffeine isn’t enough, I drink my coffee with two large spoonfuls of sugar and some caramel creamer in each cup. I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with the taste of coffee, so the sugar makes the drink even more addicting.

While I might not have the healthiest attachment to coffee, I’m not ready to give up my ritual of coffee drinking just yet. No matter how many times my roommates and friends mock me for drinking too much sweet coffee too late in the day, I’m comforted by the familiarity of the drink. My go-to brewing method is the Keurig; I enjoy packing my pre-ground beans into a refillable pod, pouring 10 ounces of water into the machine, and waiting as my coffee turns out the same every day. This method is quick and reliable,  I know what to expect every time I press the brew button. If I’m working on a large project or just exhausted, I’ll turn to my French press, brewing a larger batch of coffee to consume over an hour. And as I said before, my Nespresso machine is reserved for special occasions, like preparing for job interviews, drinking coffee with friends, or if I just feel like treating myself. Whatever method I choose, a cup of coffee keeps me on task for homework sessions and ultimately keeps me functioning. 

The coffee machines are still on display in my kitchen, with several currently out of commission. Twice a day in my apartment, you can expect to catch a whiff of the classic coffee smell when I’m brewing up a cup. Maybe this summer I’ll try to wean myself off coffee, but realistically I doubt I’ll ever give it up. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Roasty Coffee.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited on May 1, 2021, to reflect two word changes on behalf of the author.

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Essays

A Food Breakup and New Beginnings

“Dinner’s ready!” I yell to my roommates as I place down a homemade platter of fried chicken, buttered corn, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

After stuffing our faces full, Peter and Will glanced at one another and then turned to me. “Logan, we talked about this and we think we’re going to go on a diet.”

My heart sank into my chest. I felt like I had just been broken up with. I associate diets with no more sweets, no more carbs, no more fats, and definitely no more fried chicken. Eating always comforts me. Being able to eat whatever I want feels so liberating; to take those feelings of freedom away just felt cruel. 

To free up time, my apartment serves family-style meals where each roommate cooks at least one dinner a week. I suddenly worried that our pasta dinners, stir fry nights, and Taco Tuesdays would disappear, replaced with flavorless meals of chicken and two sides. Grilled chicken can only be eaten so many times before it becomes outrageously boring. Nonetheless, maybe I needed a change. 

“We only want to add more vegetables to our meals and cook with less oil. That’s all,” my roommates clarified. 

I was skeptical at first, but I begrudgingly agreed to try it out. Rather than view these guidelines as limitations, I took them as a challenge. From now on, I would use these suggestions as motivation and turn these bland dishes into something flavorful and tasty.

After decent meals of butternut squash soup and vegetarian Mapo Tofu, Friday night came around and it was my turn to cook dinner. While I was craving breaded pork chops and rice pilaf, I scrapped that idea for a more ‘roommate friendly’ meal. I opened the fridge to see what we had: chicken breasts, spinach, mushrooms, and some old pizza. I shuddered. I had a flashback to my middle school cafeteria lunches of dry chicken, spinach slop, and frozen mushroom stew. Bringing myself back to reality, I knew I could do better. I chucked the pizza slices in the trash, grabbed my ingredients, and got to work. 

I sliced the chicken into pieces and coated them with salt, pepper, and garlic powder before browning in a pan. We had no heavy cream to make a creamy sauce, so I had to improvise. The chicken was replaced with butter and garlic and I worked on the sauce. I sweated out the mushrooms and added some chicken broth. I added in my spinach and threw my chicken back in, letting it simmer until the sauce thickened and the flavors melded together. I added salt and pepper to taste, and as a final touch, I grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano all over the meal.

Photo Courtesy of The Kitchn.

I did it. I not only cooked according to my roommates’ standards, but I also finished in record time. I am notorious for underestimating how long my meals take to cook—an estimated 7 p.m. dinner often turns into an 8:30 p.m. supper. I turned a meal I despised into something filling and flavorful.

I realize now that I limited my opportunities for food excellence by ignoring multiple food groups. I challenged myself to make a bland meal taste better, and mushrooms, spinach, and even grilled chicken can be delicious if cooked correctly. Although I prepare dinner each week, I only cooked to my tastes. This process made me broaden my culinary range and adapt my meals for my roommates’ taste buds. Pushing these boundaries led me out of my comfort zone and took my culinary skills to a new level. 

Setting down the platter of creamy spinach and mushroom chicken, I yell, “Dinner’s ready!”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Salt and Lavender.