Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunday dinner in Anderson Hall: “work” or “play?”

Last night I hosted our fourth dinner of the semester in Anderson Hall. The meal included lamb curry made with yoghurt - a new dish for me. There was a red vegetable curry with turnips, tomatoes and mushrooms. There was that staple of many South Asian Meals, dhal - a dish typically made with lentils. Finally there was fried eggplant (brinjol). There were various pickles, chutney and, a favorite of mine, freshly made coconut sambol.

Sunday dinners are a production. This week, preparations began on Saturday when I prepared the menu and checked out my supplies. I was running out of spices, so I planned a trip to a block of South Asian - Halal markets on Lee Highway, on my way to the country. The block is reminiscent of Sri Lanka. When I am in one of the stores, I can imagine I am there. Stores are small and I often have to visit several before crossing all the items off my list. I bought curry powder, ground cardamom, paprika, cinnamon sticks, chopped coconut, mango chutney, mango pickle and garlic pickle. One store’s proprietor was from India, the other from Bangladesh. In the latter, a DVD played passages from the Holy Koran, first in Arabic and then in English. I must get a copy of that DVD.

On Sunday, I left the country early to complete my shopping at the local Giant store near American University. I bought lamb, turnips, fresh strawberries, onions and a green pepper for sambol. I replenished my supply of Klondike bars and sugar free popsicles. I stocked up on some sale items that would be useful in future dinners - salad dressing and anchovies for the chef’s salads I sometimes feature.

Dinner preparations began about four and continued, with rising intensity, right up to the last minute. Though it was parents weekend - always a slow night because students have spent time, and possibly dinner, with their parents - there were thirteen guests, plus a first visit from American University’s first faculty couple in residence, living in refurbished Nebraska Hall, on the other side of campus. One couple had just returned from a twenty-seven mile bike marathon to Mount Vernon.

Conversation at Sunday night dinners is rarely profound. The biking couple spoke of their trip. The new faculty couple recounted experiences of their first weeks in residence. A young woman spoke of problems with her car and getting it repaired. Her father had spilled ice tea and shorted out the seat belt interlock - and not told her about it. We commiserated about problems of getting good customer service, in auto-repair shops, from IT help desks and elsewhere. By 9:20 - dinner began at eight - we had said our last good byes and cleanup began.

The young woman who helps me with dinners, “Emily,” is the fifth to have played that role. She is attractive, energetic and unfailingly cheerful. These are qualities I appreciate and recruit for. Politically, she describes herself as a conservative, but we rarely talk about politics. Last night, she selected a Beach Boys album from my ipod. We both knew all the songs and sang along while we cleaned up. She told me the Beach Boys performed at the first concert she ever attended. We discussed different styles in music. She likes hip-hop and country and is enjoying a classical music course. Beethoven’s “ode to joy,” the finale to his Ninth symphony, is one of her favorites. Shortly before eleven, we were done and Emily departed with a care package of lamb curry for her roommate.

From shopping list preparation to cleaning up, the entire production had occupied about eleven hours, of which the dinner, itself was only ninety minutes. After completing a dinner, I have a better appreciation of why catering costs for the many CTE events at which we serve food are so high. AU’s catering department provides great service and personal attention. This takes staff time, resources and good management.

Driving home from the country, I was listening to a “Speaking of Faith” interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, founding Director of the National Institute for Play. Brown was discussing the importance of play in a healthy life. The interview lead me to reflect on whether Sunday night dinners are “work” or “play.” “Both” is the answer I came to. I think the best sort work life is one in which “work” and “play” are so intermingled it is hard to tell them apart. Much of my vocation as a faculty member and at American University has that quality. It is something to be thankful for.


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