Friday, 7 p.m. I light the candles.
For the last two hours, I have been rushing: cleaning up toys and clutter, vacuuming, dusting. Now the table is set with my great-grandmother's good china. My four-year-old daughter, Lucia, is busily folding paper napkins and placing them next to each of 10 plates. Between the candlesticks are a plate of sliced bread, a dish of olive oil, a small bowl of grated fresh Parmesan. My husband, Joe, bends over a pot of simmering sauce. A pot of salted water rests on the stovetop, ready to be boiled when the guests arrive. I've changed into a clean T-shirt and cotton skirt. My feet are bare. After I light the candles, I stop cleaning, dim the lights, put my phone away, and pour two glasses of wine.
It isn't long before our little rowhouse, on the far northern edge of Philadelphia's Fishtown section, is full. My friend Stephanie, a massage therapist and space designer, brings her husband, Joe, and their daughter, five-year-old Olivia, who shows Lucia her new toy pony. The girls rush to the toy corner. Steph presents us with a salad loaded with goat cheese, walnuts, and fresh strawberries.
Brian and Carina arrive from down the street with two bottles of wine. Lily and Nico tease us about the unusually clean house. Peter, Catherine, and Catherine's mother, Diane, who's visiting from Connecticut, arrive laden with diaper bags and car seats. We drink wine and take turns bouncing baby Rosie on our knees while Joe boils the big pot of pasta. The room feels changed somehow, smaller and brighter and warmer.
When the table is full of platters of pasta and steaming bowls of meatballs, we sit and raise our glasses:
"To Friday Night Meatballs!"
Breaking Out of Busy
Joe and I have been doing this every Friday, give or take a few, for nine months. They have been extraordinary months.
We had a few simple problems to solve. Working from home (as a freelance writer and editor) can be incredibly isolating, and we'd spent most of the year so busy with work and other obligations that we'd had almost no time for a social life. People were always inviting us out, but by the time we factored in the cost of babysitting and the loss of what precious time we get, as working parents, with our daughter, we rarely said yes.
We had no idea how much the simple act of gathering for dinner would transform our family's life.
Joe grew up in a traditionally minded Italian-American family in Long Branch, New Jersey, where they call red sauce "gravy." On Sundays, his father, Alfonso, got up early to start the sauce before Mass. Sunday dinner was spaghetti and meatballs. Joe hasn't been to Mass in 30 years, but he has always expressed love through cooking—and his meatballs are to die for. He's a talented home chef with an eye for R&D: He's worked hard on his father's recipe to achieve just the right tenderness, the perfect amount of sauce saturation. Lucia often stands on a step stool to watch him roll the meat and bread in his hands—she is squeamish about meat (except for bacon), but asks question after question as he works.
My household, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, was less traditional, but it too was suffused with the sense memory of meatballs and sauce. Once a week my father, who had joint custody, picked me up and took me out for spaghetti and meatballs at Hoffstot's in Oakmont. I was the world's pickiest eater and mealtimes were often battles, but at Hoffstot's I was always happy.
When we started hosting family dinners, then, meatballs were the obvious choice. We'd noticed that visiting friends often requested them; they seemed to us too pedestrian for guests, but our friends from other food cultures—Indian, Jewish, West African—adored them. So meatballs it was.
On my 33rd birthday, I took to Facebook:
So here's what Joe and I have decided to do, in my 33rd year, to make our lives happier: we are instituting a new tradition we call Friday Night Meatballs. Starting next Friday, we're cooking up a pot of spaghetti and meatballs every Friday night and sitting down at the dining room table as a family—along with anyone else who'd like to join us. Friends, neighbors, relatives, clients, Facebook friends who'd like to hang out in real life, travelers passing through: you are welcome at our table. We'll just ask folks to let us know by Thursday night so we know how many meatballs to make. You can bring something, but you don't have to. Kids, vegetarians, gluten-free types, etc. will all be taken care of. The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We'll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You're invited.
The response was immediate: I was inundated with "likes" and comments from down the street and across oceans. I showed Joe and he raised an eyebrow: "We're going to need more chairs."
In the weeks that followed, we got used to hosting. It became less of an ordeal. We got more chairs. More wineglasses, too. We began making meatballs ahead of time and freezing them. We capped the guest list at 10 adults and as many children as could play well together without too much supervision. And we stopped worrying about making everything perfect. Our parents and grandparents, we realized, hadn't made a big deal about hosting family dinners; it was just something they did. It was normal. After a few weeks it started to feel normal for us, too. I jettisoned any visions I might have had about cloth napkins and Pinterest crafts and began to relax.
Those problems we'd set out to solve? It wasn't long before we realized our solution was working. Little Lucia began looking forward to Friday Night Meatballs as a weekly playdate. She was learning how to interact with adults, too: She took on the job of dishing the correct number of meatballs onto guests' plates. Joe and I saw more of our friends and strengthened our social networks as word began to spread. And my isolation? Well, this was the winter we learned the term "polar vortex." Philadelphia had record-breaking snow, bitter cold, and no fewer than nine canceled school days. I spent the endless blizzards trying desperately to meet deadlines while entertaining my child. There were entire weeks when I barely left the house. For this hardcore extrovert, Friday Night Meatballs became a lifeline. And things started to happen.
Part of the fun of hosting a weekly dinner is the rotating cast of characters. We have our beloved regulars, but the mix is always different. Seinfeld's George Costanza famously flipped over his "worlds colliding"—friends from one sphere of life mixing with friends from another—but today, social media has our worlds colliding on a regular basis as coworkers, college friends, and conservative uncles argue politics on Facebook threads.
At Friday Night Meatballs, bringing together those disparate groups can yield all sorts of connections. One friend asked me to let her know any time I got an RSVP from a cute single guy. I did, and soon found myself following the dating drama via text message. Professional connections happen, too: One recently laid-off guest found herself passing the bread to someone who was hiring in her field. Chef and food blogger Nancy found an agent for her cookbook over dessert. (I suspect the perfect crust on her blueberry-lemon pie was what won him over.) Filmmaker Matt Pillischer, who was promoting a screening of his documentary about the criminal justice system, found a table full of activists eager to help spread the word.
There's something about the mix of candlelight and comfort food (okay, and wine) that encourages people to relax and share their stories. I've always found hosting parties to be stressful, but Friday Night Meatballs has become an escape at the end of the week. In his book The Sabbath, rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel observes that "there is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord." This, he says, is the point of taking a day off for rest and reflection and the company of loved ones: It's when we manage to stop worrying about making a living that we start actually living.
Perhaps that's why Friday Night Meatballs has struck such a chord. When we hosted a Friday Night Meatballs at my mother's house in Pittsburgh over the holidays, we lifted the limit on guests—and 30 people came out. All of them said the same things: We love the idea. There's something perfect about it. Why don't we get together like this more often?
This isn't a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, of course; Shabbat dinners, Sunday suppers, Ramadan iftar, and the like are cherished all over the world. But in late-capitalist America, it can be hard to find community. The institutions that used to provide communal social life, like churches and unions, have long been in decline. People work long hours, often with long commutes or multiple jobs. An increasing number of us are freelancers, working from home without company. Social events aren't always hospitable for families with young children, and those who don't have kids can go years without even interacting with them. And with an economy that's really only recovered for a wealthy few, many Americans are more likely to down a burger in the drive-thru on the way to a second job than to sit down around a family table.
Friday Night Meatballs is intergenerational, kid-friendly, low-key, and cheap. You don't have to join anything: The biggest obligation it asks you to shoulder is showing up with a dessert or a bottle of wine. And it even has a hashtag.
If you'd like to give it a try, here are a few things I've learned along the way.
Hosting Without Stress
1. Use Tech Tools to Take Control of the Guest List
The first rule we made for Friday Night Meatballs was that our table would be open. We would welcome old friends, new acquaintances, internet friends, and friends of friends, with no set guest list. This has worked well, though we often have to explain to surprised new friends that, yes, we really are inviting you to a family dinner like you used to have at Grandma's house.
But since it caught on quickly, we discovered early on that we needed to limit our head count. Our narrow Philadelphia rowhouse can fit about 10 people before things get a little too cozy. We also began enforcing a 24-hour RSVP rule, which helps us avoid running out of meatballs. Facebook and Twitter are great for getting the word out; if you like to know what to expect, a shared Google Drive spreadsheet with 10 numbered slots lets you track RSVPs. You can also add a column for people to tell you what they're bringing, which is a nice way to avoid winding up with three salads and no wine. Sites like Perfect Potluck and Punchbowl also let you track guests and will even send out automatic reminder emails. Just remember not to overthink things!
2. Don't Sweat the Housework
Women are often taught from childhood that the state of one's home is a matter for pride or shame, but I've found that hours spent writing or with my kid are far more valuable than hours spent scrubbing things that will be dirty again in two hours. I'm also just really not very good at organizing or decorating. Our house is more or less permanently disheveled. Cleaning seemed like it would be the most daunting part of hosting Friday Night Meatballs, but I've discovered two secrets.
The first: Set aside one hour on Friday afternoon to do a speed-clean. Whatever you can get done in an hour is what gets done. You'll be amazed at how much you accomplish.
The second secret is even simpler: Stop giving a shit. Really. Your family and friends want to see you, relax, and eat meatballs. They do not care if your apartment is small or if there is dust on the mantlepiece. They might not even see the dust: That's what the candlelight's for! And if they do, screw 'em. (Or draft them to wash the dishes.) I'd rather spend my life eating with friends in a messy house than refusing to have anyone over because the place isn't nice enough for guests.
When you host a traditional dinner party, there are usually multiple courses involved: hors d'oeuvres, entrée, dessert, et cetera. You find recipes that are a little more special than usual. You pray that the soufflé rises. It's stressful. You do not want to do that every week. That's why it's better to pick one relatively simple dish and stick to it. Let your guests bring the salads and side dishes. Not only will you save money and time, you'll also get really, really good at that one dish. Have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi? That's sort of what Joe is like with meatballs.
4. Your Freezer Is Your Friend
There's another benefit to specializing, which is that you can make components of your dish ahead of time and freeze them. Hosting is a lot easier when you're not tied up in the kitchen all night. We make meatballs early in the week, then let them spend all day Friday in the slow cooker, soaking up sauce. Your freezer is also a handy place to store alternatives for guests with dietary restrictions. If you make vegan or gluten-free meatballs, freeze them individually on a cookie sheet covered with waxed paper, so they won't stick together, then store them in portion-sized bags so they'll be ready when guests need them.
One of the most magical things about Friday Night Meatballs is that people put their phones away. We don't make this a rule, though you certainly could, but most of the time everyone is so busy eating and talking that phones just get in the way. I'm notorious for constantly snapping photos, but I've taken very few during Friday Night Meatballs. My theory is that the desperate need to stay connected that keeps us tethered to our phones melts away when we're all sitting around a table sharing a meal, actually connected. Once your candles are lit, put your phone away and just be there. You'll be amazed at how renewed you feel once the last guest has left.
In the past nine months, friends who've been inspired by Friday Night Meatballs have told me about slow cookers full of meatballs in hotel rooms at conferences. There's a Taco Tuesday in Minneapolis and a Brisket Brunch in Austin. Many others have shared their favorite low-stress ways to bring people together: game nights, "bring a weird snack" night, bad-movie night, Sunday brunch club, even a backyard fried-chicken competition. It doesn't matter what dish you serve or what idea brings you together: The point is simply to break bread.