When I was nominated to be one of three student speakers at my graduation from the University of Chicago this past June, I felt honored, terrified, and stumped. I wasn’t class president or an academic superstar. I couldn’t summon stirring rhetoric about “Our Education” and “The Future.” I was just a girl with an esoteric major who loved to write and lived to cook, especially with her friends. So I went for broke and decided to tell a story about the best part of my college experience: Shabbat dinner.
For the second half of my undergrad life, when my friends and I had finally schlepped out of student housing into our own “grown-up” apartments, we gathered together almost every Friday night to eat together. But it wasn’t just a regularly scheduled dinner party. Even though only one of us was Jewish, the meal was still Shabbat to us. We’d say the Kiddush, clumsily but eagerly, and greet each other with a cheery “shabbat shalom!” on our way up the stairs. Even I, an acknowledged goy, took it upon myself to learn bread-baking so we could have homemade challah (or pita, or ciabatta, or naan, depending on the occasion).
Anywhere from three to 12 of us would gather around a table co-hostessed by three best-friends-cum-roommates. The tableau was classically collegiate: we sat on Ikea loungers and swivel chairs crammed around a secondhand table, we ate off chipped plates and drank Trader Joe’s boxed wine out of jelly jars and coffee mugs. The cuisine could be anything from fried rice to carne asada to an epically cheesy vegetarian lasagna, depending on who was cooking.
It all became a ritual: walking over at seven, arriving half an hour later, grateful for either a warm respite from the cold or a cool breeze in the heat of late spring, then eating, drinking, laughing and just being together. After dinner, as we lolled on the couch, playing Jenga or Scrabble or channel surfing on mute, we’d sometimes pause, just briefly, and reflect on the moment in time as if we were our older selves, writing each other’s wedding toasts or meeting each other’s kids. We called it future nostalgia, a preemptive look back to these humble moments made with food and friends.
Our last Shabbat together was May 25th, a week before finals and two weeks before we would all don our caps and gowns. We feasted on hearty lentils with tender, sweet onions; cucumbers and tomatoes in a classic Israeli salad; spicy chicken thighs crowned with creamy dollops of labneh, and — since it was always a favorite — roasted Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar. Of course we drank lots of wine. Of course we listened to Vitamin C’s “Graduation.” Of course we knew we would miss not just each other but this meal, this wonderful, reliable succession of once-a-week moments that was suddenly over, ready to be wrapped up like all of our mismatched flatware and packed away into the past.
Later, when I got up on the stage to the face the 5,000 or so people that was my graduating class and their families, I was uncannily calm. I didn’t trip or stutter or speak too fast. I told the story of Shabbat, the story of my friends, and how it became the story of my life in college. I saw in the crowd of faces not an anonymous sea of anybodies but the people I saw every week around that table, and I wanted them to see not just the primacy but the singularity of everyday moments like eating a meal together. My speech wasn’t just for my friends, it was about them and the moments we made. Because, in the end, that is what life is: a string of moments, of meetings, of meals, so ordinary yet so important, that nourish you.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Parmesan and Balsamic Serves 8
2 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and bottoms trimmed
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2) Halve the Brussels sprouts (or quarter them if they are large) and toss with the oil, salt, and pepper.
3) Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet and roast, stirring once or twice, for approximately 35 minutes, or until they become a deep golden brown color.
4) Transfer to a large serving bowl and toss with the balsamic. Sprinkle with cheese and serve warm