Here’s what it’s like, moving into an unfinished house, for two working parents with two small children: Chaos.
Since our move-in was a rushed and disorganized DIY, we couldn’t easily find anything among the piles of boxes that had been hastily stuffed and poorly marked. We’d open a box (that might or might not be labeled), and try to get it close to the room in which its contents belonged.
We’d used clothes and linens to pack breakable items, so even a box marked “KITCHEN” likely contained things that did not belong in the kitchen. Unpacking them was as much an emotional as a physical process, since some of the “KITCHEN” boxes were my mother’s things.
Then there was the marital discord over how to unpack.
I wanted things quickly to look settled and decorated, so when I unpacked a box of (name any item – books, dishes, tchotchkes) I arranged them, spent time arranging them, to look attractive.
Bernard, on the other hand, wanted to unpack everything and let it pile up until all of the boxes were empty, then we could sort it all out.
There were no doors for any of the bedrooms or bathrooms, no floor in the downstairs half bath, no light fixtures in half of the rooms.
Our schedule was a free-for-all. Having taken so many days off when my mother died, my work was intense. I dropped the children off at Calvary Place around 8:30 each morning, picked them up at 5:55, and raced home to get them fed, bathed, and in bed.
Bernard, having taken so many months to work on our house, was back to the regular crew, working on other people’s renovation projects. Sometimes he was home for dinner, but sometimes not.
“Control what you can control,” a counselor advised, which I took as free license to spend a small fortune at The Container Store, buying clear plastic storage bins for toys and shoes, small metal tins for spices. One night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, I sat at the table in the kitchen (the only room relatively settled, compared to the rest of the house, because it was the only room we finished) with my label maker, typing and printing and sticking: SAFFRON, CAYENNE, TURMERIC, CINNAMON, CARDAMON, and so on, until I had everything tidy and taken care of, arranged in a drawer, in control.
Ridiculous, right? But true.
The first year in the new (very old) house was complete chaos. By the following spring, though, we’d started to establish the beginnings of a family routine, a rhythm that took the edge off.
One anchor in this routine was Sunday supper.
In my growing-up home, Sunday nights were the only nights when we were allowed TV and dinner at the same time. We set up individual, folding TV tables and watched those staples of 1970s life, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the ABC Sunday night movie.
This was one of the few lived experiences Bernard and I shared in common. So establishing a Sunday supper routine for our own, new family was something that emerged on its own, organically.
Some Sundays featured long, slow cooking — carne adovada in the oven for several hours, or a roast chicken with garlic and lemon — making the entire house fragrant and cozy.
Other Sundays, usually when the weather was nice, featured simple, easy meals that came together quickly: grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, cheese soufflé, chicken paillards.
As our children grew older and resisted weeknight family dinners (“We are eating at the table, as a family, AGAIN?!”), Sunday suppers held true with few complaints. They became (and still remain) the reset button for each week, a time to recalibrate.
“I like it when you make that rice stuff,” my daughter said one Sunday afternoon, as she and her brother headed out to tennis practice and I to the grocery. “Yeah,” her brother echoed, “like, we could have that every Sunday, and it’d be cool.”
“Risotto?” I asked, to make sure we were clear.
“That creamy rice that you serve in a bowl,” they answered.
“Risotto,” I said. “That’s what it’s called.”
My second job after college was teaching art and photography at a boarding school in Dedham, Massachusetts, where I shared a house with two other young teachers. One of these teachers had lived with family for a year in Italy while she recovered from a serious injury. The story, as I remember it, was that when she first arrived in her relatives’ home she was unfamiliar with the Italian way of eating. She loved (LOVED) risotto from the very first bite. She asked for a second and then a third helping, not knowing that this small course was intended as the first of many. It was so American of her, she said, and a little embarrassing.
I add that story to acknowledge that preparing, serving, and eating big bowls of creamy risotto as a main course, with a side of something mild and green (haricots verts, or fresh green peas, or asparagus) isn’t remotely traditional and wouldn’t pass muster with any self-respecting Italian host. As comforting suppers go, however, risotto (of any variation) is pretty hard to beat. It’s also one of the more relaxing things to prepare, standing, and stirring, and listening to music or talking for about 25 minutes.
- Arborio rice
- White wine
- Chicken stock
- Parmesan cheese
Note: You can absolutely prepare a basic risotto with just water, butter (or olive oil), and salt. It won’t have much flavor, but sometimes that’s OK, too.
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt butter (about a tablespoon) and stir in rice (about 2 cups), thoroughly coating the grains.
Sprinkle rice with saffron, using your fingers to crush the threads, and stir. (So pretty; so fragrant.)
Add the wine (about a cup), stir, and keep stirring while it cooks down. This will take a few minutes; do not rush it.
When the liquid is mostly gone, add some stock (or water) (about a cup), and stir, and keep cooking until the liquid is absorbed.
Repeat until the rice is cooked and creamy looking. Total time should be around 25 minutes.
Serve in bowls, topping with shaved (or grated – but shaved is better) Parmesan or other hard, acidic cheese. Round things out with sides of mild greens, crisp apples, or perhaps some luscious pears.
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”