Dinner for...39?

Some families still gather for an old-fashioned, Sunday dinner


Phyllis Nutkis


When 20-year-old Viviana Salgado has dinner with her family this Thanksgiving, she might not get to sit at the table. That’s because the rest of her extended family will be there, too—all 39 of them. But Salgado is used to eating with this large crowd. She does it every week when the family gathers for Sunday dinner at her grandmother’s house on Chicago’s North Side.

In most families, gatherings like this one are a relic of the past, or something relegated to Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s hard to imagine cooking for three dozen people every week while juggling soccer practice, dance lessons, meetings and work. Not to mention most families are spread across the country—or world.

But those who gather for dinner each Sunday say they can’t imagine life without these weekly reunions, where everyone pitches in to make the cooking and cleaning manageable. And while big family gatherings can be a challenge, experts say all generations benefit from these close relationships.

Salgado’s relatives head for her grandmother’s house after church and arrive by noon. From the moment the first group arrives, it’s a kind of wonderful, organized chaos. Salgado’s grandmother has already been cooking for a couple of hours, and the house is filled with the spicy fragrance of traditional Mexican dishes such as tamales with beans or menudo, a mixture of beef tripe, chiles, hominy and spices.

It’s not cheap to feed 39 people—"It probably costs my grandma at least $40 just for the meat," Salgado says—so everyone chips in.

The dining room can’t hold everyone, so the family eats in shifts. When one family finishes, another takes its place. Meanwhile, people are in the kitchen, slicing tomatoes and washing lettuce for the next shift. Someone from the previous group is washing dishes while others watch a football game or sit outside in good weather.

"And the kids are always running around anyway," Salgado says, "unless they’re in trouble and someone makes them sit down.

"It’s pretty loud," she admits. "There are lots of little kids, so there are always babies crying and kids yelling." But there’s lots of laughter, too, she says.

So much family togetherness might seem like a recipe for strife, but Salgado says conflicts are rare. "Sometimes there are arguments, but we talk things out. If people get upset, the others calm them down."

Everyone benefits

This family dynamic is typical of large extended families, says Saba Ayman-Nolley, chair of the psychology department at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. "Limited arguing and fighting is part of the process," she says. "But as long as it’s positive, there is nothing but good to be gained from being part of a family like this."

And the benefits extend to all generations. "Grandparents who have ongoing, close relationships with their grandchildren tend to be more engaged cognitively and socially. It seems to slow the aging process. They stay younger," Ayman-Nolley says.

Parents have a built-in support system. "The burden of child-raising doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the parents. It’s less stressful," she says.

Kids have a lot to gain, too, because they learn from children of different ages. "A group of cousins is the perfect environment for this kind of learning," Ayman-Nolley says.

Peter and Laura Nowicki feel fortunate they can provide those opportunities for their four children, ages 1½ to 15. Peter Nowicki, his parents and his six siblings all live within five miles of one other in Oak Park, where they grew up. Just like the Salgado’s relatives, Nowicki’s whole family—32 in all, including the newest addition, 3-month-old Julia—gathers at his parents’ house every Sunday.

Unless someone is out of town, it’s almost unthinkable to miss a week. "You can’t even call it a priority. It’s just a given," Peter says.

"It’s not required," Salgado agrees. "Everyone just goes." Until she was a teenager, she thought everyone’s family was the same way. Occasionally, she was unhappy that she couldn’t see her boyfriend on Sunday, but that was outweighed by spending time with her family—both the weekly dinners with her father’s family and get-togethers with her mom’s relatives.

"Sometimes there were things I had a hard time talking to my mom about, and I could go to my aunts for advice," Salgado says. And she can usually rely on sympathy from her grandmother. "My grandma knows how my mom can be, since she raised her."

No secrets here

Jackie Rouder, a social worker at Chicago’s Noble Street Charter School, says privacy can be an issue in large, close, extended families. "What one person knows, the whole family knows," she says. "But in exchange, kids get an incredible sense of stability and comfort. They know that no matter what else is going on, they can count on being together with their families every week. It builds their sense of identity, knowing and feeling that they belong."

"It’s really a blessing," says Nowicki’s sister, Jodi Pacer, whose five kids range in age from 6 to 14. "I can’t really think of any disadvantages, and I’ve never heard any complaints from my kids."

Even their school essays on how they spent their summer vacations, which describe family trips to a Michigan cottage, "are filled with complete joy. ... Their world is safe and encompassing—it’s a security blanket."

As the oldest grandchild, Nowicki’s son Tyler, 15, is the role model for his 16 younger cousins. "He fights or embraces that role, depending on his mood," Nowicki says. "But he has a great relationship with not just his cousins, but also with his aunts and uncles."

When Tyler needs helps with English homework, he asks his Aunt Jodi, who studied English. He doesn’t even need to call first to see if she’s home—she lives across the street, so he can see right into her kitchen window. Pacer’s daughters, in turn, talk to their Aunt Laura about volleyball, cheerleading and, of course, boys.

As a spouse who married into the family, Laura Nowicki found joining such a large, close-knit group took some getting used to. But her mother was also one of seven siblings, and Laura Nowicki knew she wanted a big family.

"And that’s a good thing," Peter Nowicki says, "because marrying into a family like this can be a little intimidating."

The true test of a budding relationship was bringing a date to Sunday dinner. "Whether she survived the evening and got along with everyone was a factor, of course. But the most important thing was whether or not she enjoyed it," he says.

"At first, it was kind of a surreal experience," Laura Nowicki remembers. "They were all so nice. I thought, maybe they’re making a special effort to be on their best behavior." But she soon discovered it wasn’t an act. "These are my best friends," she says.

After they married, the Nowickis lived in Colorado for two years, but missed their families and moved back. "Our kids needed to grow up with their family," Peter Nowicki says. "We realized that we couldn’t rob our children of that."

Just another Sunday

They regularly spend time with Laura Nowicki’s family as well, and divide up the holidays between the two sides of the family. "But the holidays are really no different than any other Sunday, except that we’re dressed a little nicer."

And the menu might be different.

"On Thanksgiving, there’s a turkey, but it’s really a token guest," Laura Nowicki says. It’s used more after Thanksgiving—for leftovers and to make soup. The main course is usually cavat, or cavatelli—pasta with sauce. On Christmas, they eat pierogi, a ravioli-like pasta stuffed with cabbage, mushrooms and onions.

"But every Sunday, it’s rigatoni and meatballs," says Laura. The only exceptions are birthdays, when the birthday person chooses the menu. "But they almost always choose rigatoni and meatballs."

Peter Nowicki’s mother, Rosemarie, still does all the cooking, making and freezing a huge batch of rigatoni and meatballs each month. The daughters and daughters-in-law take turns bringing dessert.

When people arrive on Sunday, Rosemarie encourages the children or grandchildren to make a salad or set the table. Since there’s not enough room for all 32 people to sit together, there are two tables—one for the adults and one for the kids. The adults use the everyday china, while the kids have their own plates that they designed themselves last Christmas.

When everyone is seated, Rosemarie leads the adults in prayer. The kids’ table is a little less formal. "Basically, whoever is nearby helps the older kids supervise the younger ones," says Laura Nowicki.

Lately, a little more supervision is required. Rosemarie and her husband, Jack, have just moved into a new condo with cream-colored carpet and a wall of closets with mirrored doors, that already have turned out to be an excellent canvas for sloppy kisses and pasta-smeared handprints. "We’re all planning to pitch in to buy an area rug to go under that table to protect the carpet," Laura Nowicki says.

After dinner, the cleaning detail functions like "a well-oiled machine," she says. There are no assigned jobs—everyone who isn’t busy watching the kids (or cleaning the mirrors) helps clear the table, load the dishwasher, make coffee or serve dessert.

While Rosemarie is the chef, Jack, is the maitre d’, valet and concierge. "He gives directions, helps unload the cars, makes sure everyone has a drink" and, most importantly, "bounces the grandchildren on his knee."

In such a large group, individual personalities sometimes take second place. "If you’re overly sensitive, it can be hard," says Peter Nowicki. But his parents set the tone by openly displaying affection and warmth—and patience.

"These are the people who will be your best friends," Peter says. "You know that you can rely on this group of people for whatever you need."

For families that don’t have grandparents or other relatives living nearby, holidays, birthdays and other celebrations can be lonely. But sometimes there’s a reasonable substitute. And it might be as near as across the street.

My husband and I grew up in the New York area. When we settled in Milwaukee, we were nearly 1,000 miles away from all our relatives. Friends invited us over for the holidays, but it wasn’t the same. The loneliness became even more acute after we had kids. Although our kids and their grandparents enjoyed loving relationships, they were built on phone calls and occasional visits. Our parents missed the birthday parties, piano recitals and swim meets. And we missed having them there.

A reasonable substitute, it turned out, was just across the alley. Our neighbors, Jack and Shirley, were close to our parents’ ages, and they were also alone—none of their four children lived in town.

We met them just after our first child was born. We liked each other instantly, and almost immediately adopted each other. They stepped quickly and easily into their role as surrogate parents and grandparents, and we were delighted to have them. There was never any resentment between them and our own parents—they developed a special fondness for one other based on their mutual love for us and our kids. And when their own children and grandchildren visited, it was just expected we’d be there for dinner—as part of the extended family.

In many families, of course, "Grandma" and "Auntie" are not relatives by blood or marriage. "Family" can be defined in many ways.

"The important thing is the nature of the relationships," says Jackie Rouder, a social worker at Chicago’s Noble Street Charter School. "When a group of adults and their children have long-term, stable, loyal and loving interactions, everyone gains."

Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.

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