Food Writer Spices Up the Family Dinner
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:16
Photo Courtesy of Jenny Rosenstrach
Rosenstrach recently published "Dinner: A Love Story."

Jenny Rosenstrach’s day usually begins at 7 a.m., as she drops off her two daughters at the bus stop to leave for school. For the next seven to eight hours, Jenny attempts to respond to the overload of emails in her inbox, finish a blog post — which, for yesterday, was “15 Recipes Every Parent Should Know,” including “The Elixir” (chicken orzo soup) and “The Holiday Hallmark” (homemade franks and beans) — perhaps squeeze in a run or a trip to her children’s in-school book fair and retest a recipe, figuring out how many eggs to replace for the usual cream in the her rendition of Greek chicken soup.
Rosenstrach is the creator of Dinner: A Love Story, a website that offers advice, recipes, tips and stories on how to cook a family dinner for families of all sizes, all types of eaters and for all kinds of schedules and events. In July 2012, Rosenstrach turned her website into a book, “Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table.” Rosenstrach’s book was a featured book on Amherst Reads, an online book club that connects Amherst alumni, students, faculty members, parents and friends.

College: A Love Story

Growing up, Rosenstrach was in awe of her mother, who seemed to have accomplished an impossible task: she was a full-time mother and a full-time student (she went back to law school), yet was still able to find time to make Rosenstrach, her twin brother and her older sister dinner every night. At that time, Rosenstrach “did not even think to question” her mother’s ability to juggle all these tasks. It wasn’t until she herself was a parent that Rosenstrach began to see how her mother was truly her hero.

Rosenstrach arrived at Amherst in 1989, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English as well as participating on the tennis and squash teams. Speaking highly of Coach Jackie Bagwell and her team, Rosenstrach remarks that “the team was like a family and we had lots of family dinners together.”
Coach Bagwell recalls how Jenny and one of her good friends, Jennifer Pohl, both of whom were captains their senior year, “loved to write poems and read them to the team before big matches.”
In Pohl’s poem to Rosenstrach, before their match against Tufts, Pohl wrote, “For if there’s ever a need to pull out a game, clearly J.R.’s the one we would name. An incredible winning season; four years in a row; this cute, little thing sure puts on a show!”

In fact, Pohl was one of Rosenstrach’s first friends at Amherst.

“It was probably the first or second night of school when we spent hours sitting on Memorial Hill filling each other in on all aspects of our first 18 years,” Pohl said. “Having myself come from a long line of Amherst alumni, I came to Amherst with an idea of what made a place like Amherst special. I instinctively and immediately recognized these characteristics in Jenny: substance, honest and real intelligence, unique creativity and multifaceted talent.”
Coming into Amherst, Rosenstrach thought she knew how to write; however, she said, “I really learned to write [at Amherst College]. The intensity of writing there was such an amazing thing.”
Rosenstrach remembers one of her favorite classes at Amherst, a creative writing class taught by a visiting professor and author, Caryl Phillips.

“His class liberated me a bit and made me see how much I really loved working with that style of writing,” Rosenstrach said.
However, it was an LJST class taught by Professor Lawrence Douglass that truly challenged her, “precisely because he was so scary,” Rosenstrach recalled. “There wasn’t a day when he didn’t call on me, and I didn’t humiliate myself.”
Little did Rosenstrach realize that her college experience would imitate her book, “Dinner: A Love Story.” Amherst College was a literal love story for Rosenstrach: she met her husband, Andy, when she was a junior and he a sophomore.

Finding Balance

After graduating from Amherst College in 1993, Rosenstrach took a job in financial research.
“It was the recession and everyone was like, ‘If you get a job, then take the job!’ I panicked and did not really think it through,” Rosenstrach said.

Although it wasn’t the best decision for Rosenstrach, she does not regret it.

“That job provided me with an opportunity to decide that I wanted to do something else. When I was that age, I did not realize you could try something and if it didn’t work out you could move on; it wasn’t an all or nothing proposal,” Rosenstrach said.

Soon, Rosenstrach was working for A&E, and later she was the features director at Cookie magazine and special projects editor at Real Simple. She continued to contribute to various websites and magazines, including Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Cookie (which, unfortunately, no longer exists) and Real Simple. It was here that Rosenstrach “learned how to edit, how to write, how to conceptualize stories and how to deal with the industry people.”

Although her English background from Amherst College helped to create a foundation for Rosenstrach, “I had to kind of unlearn [what Amherst taught me] when I went into publishing. Academic writing is very different than writing for a magazine or a newspaper. I had to evolve, and I am still evolving in certain ways every day.”

After working as a full-time parent for eight years, Rosenstrach realized that she would only continue to pursue her career if she could put a meal on the table for her family nearly every night.

“I decided I wanted to have more balance in my life and be home more with my kids; yet I did not want to stop working,” Rosenstrach said.

To this day, Rosenstrach’s and her husband’s parenting philosophy is: “If we eat together every night and fight hard against The Death of Anticipation [the phenomenon of kids wanting and getting everything instantly], our kids will turn out just fine.”

What was the result of Rosenstrach’s new decision? She started a blog.

Which Came First?

For Rosenstrach, her question was which came first — the writing or the cooking?
Until she was 18, Rosenstrach lived under the impression that cooking from scratch included using Betty Crocker mix, adding water and eggs and throwing it into the oven.

“I always liked to cook and I did not really realize you could write about cooking,” Rosenstrach said.
During her time spent editing and writing for food magazines, she described herself as the “concept” or “word” person, not the “food” person. She would be the one to say it would be great to do a story on the “top five ‘x’ type of dinners you should make,” not the one actually coming up with the recipes.

This, however, all changed.

“For the longest time I thought I had no business writing about recipes,” Rosenstrach said. “Then finally I decided ‘I know how to do this,’ and then I started to write.”

“Jenny was not exactly the culinary expert in our room group,” remarked Ingrid Katz, friend and teammate of Rosenstrach at Amherst College. “She was always doing really creative, funny things but was always self-effacing about it.”

Cooking with Context

Since February 22, 1998, Rosenstrach has kept a diary of what she ate for dinner almost every night.
“Eventually, it became an obsessive thing. I am still doing it now, 15 years later!” Rosenstrach said.

Her blog is based on that very diary, and her book, “Dinner: A Love Story,” is based on the blog. What strings the diary, the blog and the book together? Her family.

Her blog’s goal is to help parents figure out how to get family dinner on the table — in a very personable, entertaining and witty manner, intermingled with stories, photos and recipes.

“A lot of people take cooking super seriously,” Rosenstrach said. “I think it might be a byproduct of the fact that parents are intimidated by cooking and check every label on every box — is it sustainable, is it grass-fed, is it gluten free?”

However, Rosenstrach attempts to break down the intimidation involved in cooking and instead see it as an opportunity to not only cook for her family, but also to spend time with her husband and two daughters at the dinner table.
The importance of family dinners has always been a part of Rosenstrach’s life, from the homemade dinners her mom would
prepare for her as a child to the dinners she shared with her tennis team at Amherst.

For Rosenstrach, different circumstances in life call for different forms of meals.

“If you just graduated and are living alone, you are cooking pretty basic things,” Rosenstrach said. “Then you get married and realize you should probably eat siting down and be civilized. And then the kids come along and it’s like a bomb and you have to figure out how to cook and that can be really hard!”

“The six of us, are still ambitious women,” Katz said of her roommates. “We all have gone on to have different careers, done different things with our lives. All of us have kids, and all are working through this struggle. [Rosenstrach] is very honest about how hard that struggle is, which is just refreshing.”

The Evolving Family Dinner

On Rosenstrach’s blog, you will not find straight up recipes; rather, she tries to fuse each meal within a context.
“As a parent, you are trying to fit dinner into your schedule. You might have a kid who plays soccer and doesn’t get home till 7:30 p.m,” Rosenstrach explained.

It is important to have a meal that fits that context, such as Rosenstrach’s “Last Night’s Dinner” post under the “Quick” section of her blog. She describes “The Order of Events” of the night from 5:30 p.m. (leaving for Phoebe’s last lacrosse game of the season) to 6:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m. (“a total nail-biter” of a game) to 8:05 p.m. (“Milk poured. Pasta twirled. Picture snapped. Dinner served.”). For this sort of situation, Rosenstrach recommends spaghetti with mint-pea pesto — pasta with a blended, creamy pea mixture, freshly grated Parmesan and “some torn mint leaves if you’re feeling fancy.”
Rosenstrach has found that cooking for a family is an ever-evolving process.

“Eventually the kids will grow up, not shout at each other and eat at the table and partake in our conversation. For those kids, you can be a little more adventurous,” Rosenstrach said.
Right now, Rosenstrach’s new task is to cook for two athletes, and although they might be eating at different times, the family dinner is still a “grounding ritual.”

“Our family dinner is now one kid eating while two parents are sitting at the table with a glass of wine and the other kid is doing homework,” Rosenstrach said.

Yet, there is still a meaningful connection to this dinner; it is just slightly redefined.
“You can go a whole day without having a meaningful interaction — driving your kids to and from school, sports events, a friend’s house — and so when you sit down at dinner, you should downshift. A family dinner is a time that everyone can come to that table and say whatever they want,” Rosenstrach said.

And now, Rosenstrach has taken her blog beyond cooking. She incorporates her children’s favorite books into her blog, for books are a major conversation starter at family dinners, as well as a new “Friday Round Up” section that includes news articles, YouTube videos, parenting tips and random tidbits from the Rosenstrach family.

Words of Wisdom

“When you graduate, learn to cook for yourself and you will save money and be healthier. And if it happens that your life includes someone else, that person will be very appreciative that you know how to cook,” Rosenstrach said, laughing.
Want to take your first steps into the world of cooking? Rosenstrach has created a section just for you! Go to the “First Time Here?” section and read up. Rosenstrach recommends looking at Bullet Point 8, her favorite posts by Andy (a man whom she consults before publishing anything and whom she admits is a better cook than herself), as well as Andy’s favorite posts by her. Among these include, “Anything Plus Broccoli” (where Andy discusses “The Transformative (and Self-Justifying) Law of Retroactive Nutritousness;” that is “_______ + Side of Broccoli = Healthy Enough”) or “One Size Fits All” (Rosenstrach’s way of making one meal fit into the taste palettes of four different individuals, two of which are “green-fearing, sauce-o-phobic, generally annoying children”).

“Jenny’s book truly taught me (an un-culinary mother of a two year old) how to cook,” said Lee Boudreaux, one of Rosenstrach’s first roommates in New York City and editor of her book. “[Her book resonates with so many people] because Jenny delivers the goods — great food, terrific advice and the wit and world-view to make you wish she was your next-door neighbor, prone to wandering into your kitchen day or night and adding in that pinch of salt you just forgot.”