Over the course of an hour, the extended family members roll in, spilling through the front door in hot, noisy, multi-generational clumps.
Inside Sheri Gray’s Leawood home, the honeyed tones of the Royals game on TV and the peppery scent of chicken frying in lard exert an unwinding effect.
Chatter slows, bodies relax into soft sectionals and only Gray’s 3-year-old niece and her new bulldog, Pork Chop, continue bouncing around.
In the kitchen, Gray works elbow to elbow with her mother, Susan Urich, preparing the main course for the afternoon feast.
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Gray’s siblings and their families have traveled from Olathe, Overland Park and Lawrence toting salads and desserts in jewel-toned lidded plastic containers.
It’s nobody’s birthday, nobody’s graduation, nobody’s anniversary. Just Sunday.
Gray and her family are bringing Sunday dinner back.
Sunday dinner started centuries ago in countries with large Christian populations, says Bridgette Lacy, author of “Sunday Dinner,” released this month by University of North Carolina Press. In other faith traditions with a different Sabbath, the meal takes place on a Friday or Saturday.
Traditionally, Sunday dinner was served midday after church and featured big cuts of meat: pot roast or roasted turkey or chicken. Often, the meat cooked all morning while the family worshipped.
Extended families frequently ate the Sunday meal together, Lacy says, something she experienced at her grandparents’ house in Lynchburg, Va., while growing up in Washington, D.C. The tradition continues today in her family.
“Often there are several of us in the kitchen, picking the ends off the green beans, talking, chatting,” she said. “Sunday dinner is a place where you learn about family history and their expectations of you and for you.”
In researching her book, Lacy sat down for Sunday dinners with many families in and around Raleigh, N.C., where she now lives. Families that, like Gray’s, are trying to carve out the time for regular meals.
Because Sunday dinner is about more than food.
“It’s the hugs, it’s the kisses on the cheeks. It’s about physically eyeballing folks: How are you really doing?” Lacy said.
And the food is familiar. Comforting. And there’s lots of it. No trendy new recipes, no small plates.
“It’s the warm rolls, the mashed potatoes, the big cakes and pies,” Lacy said.
For Gray and her three siblings, it’s the fried chicken. Mom’s fried chicken. The fried chicken they always requested for their birthdays. The fried chicken she made when she came to help out when grandchildren were born. The fried chicken she served on large platters for Sunday dinner.
And then at some point — no one remembers exactly when — Urich stopped making fried chicken.
“It became something I used to do,” she said.
Lucas, Kan., where Sheri’s mom, Susan Barta Urich, grew up on a farm, is the kind of place where “dinner” means the noon meal. On the Barta farm, dinner was often fried chicken because the family raised chickens, 300 at a time.
Urich remembers getting up in the dark to kill and dress chickens so they would cool in time to cook for dinner.
She doesn’t know how old she was the first time she learned how to cut up the birds into 10 pieces, dredge and fry them, elbow to apron strings with her mother and grandmother. “But I was the oldest of six children, followed by four boys, so it was very early,” she said.
Like many women of her generation who were raised on a farm but moved to a metropolitan area when they got married, Urich cooked for her family but didn’t teach her kids to cook. It wasn’t a survival skill in the city.
Two years ago, Gray started missing her mom’s fried chicken. No restaurants made a version that tasted the same. She wanted it back in her life.
“One day I said, ‘Hey, Mom, I want to learn how to make chicken,’” Gray says.
Urich welcomed the prospect of fried chicken returning to the table without having to preside over the stove. Half a century of frying chicken was enough.
“Sheri can make it now. It’s time to pass the baton,” she says.
The hand-off of fried-chicken-making from Generation 3 to Generation 4 proved more awkward than mother or daughter anticipated. They are still working out the kinks.
Gray is no stranger to cooking meat. She and her husband, Rod, compete on the competitive barbecue circuit. In 2009 their team, Pellet Envy, won the national championship.
In that world, Sheri, whom Rod calls “the closer,” relies on research, scrupulous sanitation, precise measurements and expensive tools, including a $100 meat thermometer.
Urich cooks by sight, touch and sound.
Pointing a slender boning knife at a spade-shaped bone, Urich tells her daughter, “I always cut that out.”
“Is that the keel bone?” Gray asks.
“I don’t know. Those weren’t the things that were important to know,” Urich replies.
Hands sheathed in disposable vinyl food prep gloves, Urich pokes around a whole leg section in search of the joint. “Sheri put me in gloves. Now I can’t feel it right.” (The gloves would come off later.)
“I don’t like touching that stuff,” Gray says. Like a lot of late baby boomers and Gen-Xers, Gray was raised in a world of shrink-wrapped meat, bagged produce and bread-making machines.
Gray asks how much salt should go in the flour dredge. Urich cups her hand, pours salt into the center and tips it into the bowl. “Maybe a tablespoon,” Gray translates.
When the lard begins popping in the cast-iron skillet, Gray slides her ThermaPen into the liquid gold. “300 degrees. I think it’s ready.”
Urich drops a pinch of flour into the pan and leans closer as it foams up. “I want it to sound hotter,” she says.
Gray is concerned about overheating the oil, so she places a few pieces of flour-coated chicken into the pan, a made-in-Oregon, cast-iron octagonal beauty.
Instantly, the sizzle fizzles. Gray dips the ThermaPen into the now flat surface of the oil. “180,” she reports.
Urich shrugs as Gray turns up the heat.
The rest of the family, awash in the afterglow of the victorious Royals, pay no attention to what’s happening in the kitchen. They joke and tell stories and make smart-aleck interjections with ease and comfort.
Even the teens appear to be enjoying themselves.
Attendance ebbs and flows, with fall being harder to get the full group together. Even with school back in session, Gray’s nephew, Cain Mathis, who studies at University of Kansas, has near-perfect attendance. “He never passes up a free meal, and he’s always happy to take leftovers home,” Gray says, smiling.
Urich, Gray and Gray’s brother and sister-in-law, Carter and Alison Arnett, take turns hosting. The family has settled into a twice-a-month rhythm, with eight to 14 people any given Sunday.
The menu is up to the host. Fried chicken is often the centerpiece, but it can also be burgers on the grill. “It has to be casual,” Gray says. “No party planning.”
But there’s no pressure to come.
“If it’s pressure, no one wants to do it,” Gray says.
That doesn’t surprise Alice Julier, director of food studies at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. In researching her 2013 book “Eating Together,” Julier concluded that reports of the death of the family dinner in America have been somewhat exaggerated.
“People talk about the decline of family meals as a stand-in for all these societal ills. But the reality is, people make a lot of effort to eat together at least once a week,” she says.
What has changed, she says, is that it’s hard to get extended families together for Sunday dinner because they live far apart.
Julier first started looking at eating together from a social perspective; food as a way to get at how we form emotional bonds.
What surprised her was learning how much the food itself mattered.
Particularly for people in their 20s and 30s, she says, cooking is the embodiment of simple life skills that we ought to have but often lack.
“To be able to make something for ourselves in a world where so much is made for us is gratifying,” she says.
Julier also discovered that when it comes to judging traditional family recipes, objectivity flies out the kitchen window. “The quest becomes: How do you make the one that speaks to your memory?”
Fried chicken isn’t the only family recipe that Sheri and Rod Gray have saved from extinction.
Twenty years ago, the couple traveled to Abilene, Kan., to unlock the secret of Rod’s grandmother’s pies.
Rod says his grandmother, Helen Widler, who lived to be 99, took joy in cooking and serving a great meal. She took special pride in her pies.
“Her filling was always good, but she always worked to produce a perfect crust. I can still hear her asking, ‘How was the crust?’ I think she truly perfected it when she was about 80,” he says.
Now Rod and Sheri are the pie bakers for both their families.
“We didn’t want those pies to go away, and we wrongly assumed when she moved out of her house into a retirement apartment, she would stop baking them,” he says. “But looking back on it now, my grandmother’s pie lesson was important beyond just learning to make pies. It’s one of my greatest family memories, and I think of her every time we flour the countertop to make crust or peel 5 pounds of apples.”
For “Sunday Dinner” author Bridgette Lacy, the dessert that stirs family memories is her deceased grandfather’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake.
“I can hear his voice when he would check it in the oven, saying ‘Nilla Wafer brown, Nilla Wafer brown,’” she says. “That was his mark of perfection if it got that color.”
Today, Lacy bakes that cake for family Sunday dinners. She laughs remembering once when her sister was asleep on the couch while Lacy made it. When the buttery vanilla scent began to waft out of the oven, her sister woke up and called out, “Where is it? Where is it?|”
“That taste is my grandfather on the plate,” she said.
Find the recipes for Grandma Barta’s Fried Chicken and Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake at kansascity.com/living.
Grandma Barta’s Fried Chicken
One whole fryer chicken, 4 to 5 pounds
Lard for frying, at least 1 pound
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
Fill a large bowl two-thirds full with salted water.
Cut the chicken into 10 pieces (instructions here), dropping the pieces into the salted water.
Heat a high-sided cast-iron skillet. Melt enough lard to reach 3/4-inch deep in the pan. Bring the lard up to about 375 degrees, bubbling but not smoking. Drop a pinch of flour onto the oil; it should sizzle immediately.
Dredge 5 pieces of chicken in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Place the coated chicken pieces in the pan.
Watch the chicken carefully. The oil should continue to bubble vigorously without smoking. (The chicken pieces will bring the oil temperature down to about 325 degrees.) When a golden brown color begins to rise up the sides of the chicken pieces, turn them over using long-handled tongs and continue frying until the other side is the same deep golden brown color. This should take around 10 minutes per side.
Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165. When the chicken is done, remove the pieces from the lard with tongs and place them in a pan covered with foil in the preheated oven.
With a slotted metal spoon, remove any solid pieces of skin or coating from the oil or they will burn.
Dredge and fry the remaining five pieces of chicken.
Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake
From “Sunday Dinner” by Bridgette A. Lacy
Makes 10-12 Servings
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 Crisco Butter Flavor All-Vegetable Baking Stick
3 cups sugar
5 medium eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (5 1/3-ounce) can Carnation sweetened condensed milk
2 ounces water
Prepare a fluted Bundt cake pan by coating the inner surface with the residue from the butter wrapper.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, shortening stick and sugar until fluffy. Crack the eggs into a separate bowl and, with the mixer running, slowly add them into the mixing bowl. Add the vanilla.
Sift together the flour and salt into a separate bowl. Combine the condensed milk and water. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture and mix well. Add 1/2 of the milk and water mixture and beat well. Add another 1/3 of the flour mixture, the rest of the milk, and then the rest of the flour mixture, beating well after each addition.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Tap the pan on the counter to release the air bubbles.
Place in a cold oven and set it at 325 degrees. Bake for about 1 hour or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Turn the cake out onto a plate. Let it cool before serving.