The importance of the dinner table is underestimated in today's culture. Our life is so full of activity and to do lists that time for meals gets squeezed and dinner can become a quick affair that doesn't necessarily take place around a table and mostly happens on the go.
A couple of times during lent while the family were eating we took turns reading aloud the Gospel of Mark. It struck us as we read that Jesus went from one meal to another and that some of the greatest things he taught to his followers happened around a dining table! To this you can imagine the children exclaimed... "You see! We always knew Jesus was Italian"...
We always joke that the ideal pass time for an Italian is talking about food while seated at table for a meal and even online I can never resist a beautiful photo of some home-cooked food in a family setting so when I stumbled across @the_ryan_table while checking my Instagram, I was hooked. Jenny was always cooking something new and the pictures reflected a happy household full of children, good food and love and care for the family. I had the pleasure to chat with her several times and decided I wanted to get to know her better.
Here on the blog with us today is Jenny Ryan:
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your Catholic background.
Like one of my favorite religious authors, Caryll Houselander, I like to call myself a rocking horse Catholic. I remember very well when my father came back to the faith and my mom converted. I was six years old and a very holy priest guided my parents to the Catholic Church. When they entered the church and turned their civil wedding into a Catholic sacrament I was so proud to be their flower girl. I never could understand why my poor mother hated it when I proudly told strangers that I was at my parents wedding! We started attending Mass every Sunday and I fell in love with everything about the church. I was at a great age to be enchanted with the many beauties of our faith. I went on to get my degree in theology and worked for a time as a campus minister. My faith certainly was challenged with the gift of motherhood. I would say it was through my vocation as wife and mother that my faith truly started to mature. God's love and mercy is very much found in struggle, and there is plenty of that to be found when trying to live one's vocation!
2. When did you discover your passion for cooking? Was is something you matured with age or was it always there and accompanied you growing up?
I am so glad that you asked. It came first out of necessity, and even boredom. I struggled with leaving work and becoming a full-time mom. I wanted a hobby but I couldn't think how to find the time to do a hobby and I am not a crafty/hobby kind of person. I happened to watch the movie, Julie and Julia. It's a true story about a young woman who decided to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook and blog about it. It was an inspiration to me and I started a blog about being a mom the next day. However, It wasn't until we discovered that one of my newborn twins had a milk allergy that I truly started to cook. I suddenly had to eradicate every drop of milk, cooked or raw, from my diet. I felt as though I was starving for a few weeks, nursing twins, caring for my two and three year old, and trying to sort through what I could and couldn't eat. Even the smallest amount of milk would cause my poor baby to scream. As I read label after label I realized that even the bread we ate had milk. I started struggling through the process of learning to make my own bread, then soup, and my love of cooking took off from there.
3. Why is it so important to make the table the focus of family life?
The table is the schoolroom of life and relationships. It is where we learn to make connections, to ask questions, and to listen with interest. It is around the table that we learn manners and to eat what we are served (and what a valuable life lesson that is!). Besides the wonderful skills family meals teach, it is the one place where, if done intentionally, we stop what we are doing to focus on each other, connect, and love without distraction. Traditions and memories are formed around food. I like to joke that one of my life goals is to be a better cook than any of my children's future in-laws so that they come to us for the holidays. But in all seriousness, good food and good times keep your family coming back for more good food and good times.
Follow Jenny on IG @the_ryan_table
4. Can you tell us your greatest success and greatest cooking disaster?
I would say my greatest success was very recent. We are a big fan of St. Joseph in our house and I heard that the tradition is to cook Italian food for the solemnity celebrated on March 19th. I got together with one of my friends and we spent the day making homemade tortellini. Not only was it fun, but it was not as difficult as I thought it would be! We made a four course meal (if you count ice cream as a course) out of it. The kids were thrilled and excited for our “fancy dinner.” I was very proud of the taste of everything, and overall it was a great food memory and now a new family tradition.
I have had many food disasters. Goodness. I would say the worst was in our first year of marriage. We were living in a little apartment and I decided to try and make steaks for the first time. I did not have a clue what I was doing. It didn't take long for me to fill the apartment with smoke, burn the steaks entirely, and ruin our brand new cookware. We opened the patio doors, fire alarm blazing and smoke billowing out. We as we choked on the smoke flowing through the doors we heard sirens and dreaded seeing fire trucks pull up under our patio. Luckily, the sirens were not for our false alarm. I did eventually, years later, learn how to make a wonderful steak.
5. What is the secret of a happy kitchen?
We must remember why we cook. Ultimately, like all things we do, it should be done for love. We can get (or is it just me?) stuck on our own idea of how we wanted a dish to turn out or an evening to unfold. As things don't turn out the way we wanted or expected, we can lose our temper, our joy, or our sense of humor. We don’t want to run around frazzled and resentful like poor Martha. Jesus wasn't upset with Martha for making all the food — someone had to prepare dinner! His gentle reminder to her had to do with joy and peace! “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things . . . " Serving with love is to cook alongside Jesus and “choose the better part” Sometimes a happy kitchen means cereal for dinner because that is what you can serve with a smile and sometimes it may mean homemade pasta with an appetizer and desert. "If we have not love we are nothing" but if we cook with love, well then, we we have the luckiest family around.
6. Not every woman feels attracted by the art of cooking and presentation but most of us have to do it as a service to our family and for the survival of the species! How would you encourage reluctant cooks to embrace art of cooking and what advice would you give them?
The first step for me was to let go of any resentment from being the one who "had to do it". Once you accept that someone has to cook, and it turns out that person is you, then you can start challenging yourself and having a little fun.
I recommend taking some special time to cook once a week. Don’t set out to make a great meal every night, I don’t know if anyone caring for a bunch of humans can do that! Once a week is a great place to start and you may have to get creative with this time if you have little ones around. Maybe your spouse can take them out for a bit, maybe a friend can come over and keep you company while your kids play together, you can try preparing dinner during nap early in the day, or maybe your kids are old enough to enjoy cooking with you — think outside the box. Once you have a night picked out for some special cooking time then pick a dish you enjoy eating. Search the internet for a recipe that looks like you could handle, or at least attempt with moderate success. When it comes time to cook, pour a glass of wine, turn on some music, and just try it. I started with bread, trying it at least three times before I got something edible. Once I was confident in that skill it led to my desire to learn more. Find a food you really want to learn how to make, start there and build upon that.
7. Are you a clean or a messy cook?
Goodness. Messy. I am truly working on that. Slowly.
8. What is your favourite single ingredient?
I love onions. I love how versatile they are and how they affect the food. I love caramelizing them, or using them raw and finally minced in a salad. It's amazing how you can change the flavor of onions and how they can change a dish.
9. What dish has the greatest religious meaning for you?
I can't think of one. I will say that I love all food with ritual or community. I love artichoke because when we eat it we gather around, pull off leaves, and dip in the same bowl — it's very communal. Coffee is also ritualistic and communal in nature. I love to share coffee with others because it means friendship and sharing confidences. I didn't answer your question, so sorry! But these types of foods are more significant to me than others because of the relationship they convey.
10. Can you share a favourite Easter recipe with our Catholic Mothers?
My favorite would be my family’s no-rise cinnamon rolls. Growing up I made these with my dad for any special occasion and now my kids love making them with me. It’s a simple recipe that can be prepared the night before and then popped in the oven for breakfast. I love even just thinking about eating them with friends and family as part of a celebration.
Jenny met her husband, John, at Belmont Abbey, a Benedictine Catholic college. There she earned a bachelors in Theology Pastoral Ministry. Although born in Canada, Jenny has lived her entire adult life in the United States. Jenny and John have been married for almost 11 years and live in North Carolina with their six children, 9, 8, 6, 6, 3, and one due in August. Jenny enjoys cooking with and for her family, hosting others in their home, and is currently learning how to garden and keep flowers (mostly) alive. You can find Jenny regularly over at www.theryantable.com