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Laurie David
The Family Dinner
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Grand Central Life & Style / Hachette Book Group
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-446-56546-2
Publication Date: 11-03-2010
256 pages, $29.99
Date Reviewed: 10-24-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction

One quick trip through 'The Family Dinner' by Laurie David will tell you all you need to know. Every page is crammed full of stuff. Colors fly everywhere, photos jostle with colored boxes full of type, quotes seem to almost be falling out of the book, activities compete with advice, you can practically hear someone shouting, "Clean up! It's time for dinner!"

Laurie David apparently has a pretty good grasp on the family dinner. It's not neat and tidy. It's not quiet. It's jam-packed with action, craziness, loud voices and the occasional projectile. Her trick, however, was to turn it into a book that itself can help make your family dinners.

In our family, we always looked forward to the Sunday Roast. I'd make a classic roast beef — sirloin tip roast, cross-rib roast, whatever was on sale — or maybe a ham or a leg of lamb, a turkey breast — with garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, or maybe a salad. It was something we all looked forward to. The Sunday Roast.

Laurie David has a practical understanding of how important the family meal is. She realized this at the dinner table, actually talking to her teenagers. But translating that understanding into a book is not an easy task. A family is all about crazy, random, unplanned spurts of energy and invention. A work of fiction can channel that sort of energy, but it's not likely to inspire cooking. Finding a way to express the unpredictable nature of pulling together a meal every single gosh-darned day is not a challenge left to the uninitiated.

It will come as no surprise then that 'The Family Dinner' is not page after page of text with Laurie David laying out recipes and offering tips for napkin-folding and seating arrangements. It's much more akin to a scrapbook put together by an extended family of extremely talented people with a lot of passion for a pet project. The result is as kinetic as it needs to be, inspiring as it has to be, but mostly just packed to the rafters with words, images and ideas that may actually help you to get your family's keesters to the chairs.

'The Family Dinner' does have a plan. You need a plan. The sixteen chapters start with simple steps to get dinners made — and eaten at the same time sitting down together. You get plenty of recipes by Kirsten Uhrenholdt; a chapter on fast recipes, for example, Pan pasta and Chicken Schnitzel. You get slow cooking — Arroz con pollo, or Lentil stew. You also get a chapter on reading at the table, and trust me, reading while eating is one of the great pleasures life can offer.

But 'The Family Dinner' goes a lot farther than recipes. Laurie David talks about divorce, and offers a chapter on showing gratitude. But to just pull out the subjects and the recipes takes the book apart in a way that doesn't suggest its effect. This is an exuberant, joyous book. Sure, it gets a bit on the sentimental side, but David offers everything with charm. There are enough photos and sidebars to keep every chapter as lively and hopping as an active family dinner. And even if you don't have kids around, there's certainly a use for a book based around the ritual of breaking bread and fast with those you love.

For all the easy, smart fun to be had here, 'The Family Dinner' is a pretty sophisticated affair. David seamlessly integrates elements of autobiography, cookbooks, cut-and-pastes interviews with luminaries from a wide variety of disciplines, and does so with a very down-to-earth, homey feel. There are lots of tips, hints, insets, and graphic flourishes to make all this seem fun. And it is fun. But there is quite of bit of synthesis going on here. David talks about green living, divorce, the importance of gratitude and reading in a straightforward and unpretnetious manner. All this in a book that is likely to get splattered with cooking oil.

Happily, 'The Family Dinner' is a book best experienced in hardcover, in person, in a local bookstore. You open it up and you'll see what I mean. This is "Little House in the Suburbs," 21st century style. It's unpretentious and fun. When Laurie David talks about sitting down with a book for dinner, 'The Family Dinner' is the perfect first course.

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