The Family Dinner Lives On

The plan: Come to Key West to get away from the noise and stresses of the city and the early winter we're having up north and to spend some pre-Christmas time with my mother and my brother, Tim.

But, as John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Sure enough, I made it to the Conch Republic, with leisurely bike rides and daily yoga practice in mind. What I wasn't in store for was the surprise arrival of my brother, John, whom I hadn't seen in more than three years. To be honest, it kinda threw a wrench in my vacation mojo. We never really hit it off -- he pushed me head first into a pile of dog poo when we were kids -- and his drug abuse and resulting brushes with the law didn't exactly bring us closer together.

The O'Donnel family: Tim, Susan, John in the rear; and me in front. (Mister MA)

But now John's out, doing his darndest to stay clean, and there he was, the sweet talking shoulda-been-a-politician, eager to reconnect with his entire family for the first time in six years.

Our family wasn't always this fragmented. Every night for 15 years -- from 1971, the year Tim was born, until 1984, when I left for college -- we ate dinner together. It wasn't always tasty and it may have taken place in a restaurant, but the one thread that kept our family together -- even when my father died -- was dinner.

The table, an antique oak circle in my mother's orange wallpapered kitchen, was our anchor. It was, as a June, 2006 Time magazine article so aptly describes, "where a family builds its identity and culture. Legends are passed down, jokes rendered, eventually the wider world examined through the lens of a family's values."

Jokes and oddball humor have been an integral part of our family's culture, a wacky buffet of comedic cheap shots and improv standup that usually results in uncontrollable laughter. And that is exactly what happened this week: We had family dinner every night, and we laughed ourselves silly.

At first, the dynamic was tentative, with everyone sizing up the other, over steamed Key West pink shrimp at Hogfish Bar & Grill. Brunch the next morning at Sarabeth's was more intimate, as we scrunched around two patio-sized tables and slowly began to relax, the camera began to click and the jokes began to fly.

By dinner that night, an alfresco affair of two pizza pies from Upper Crust, followed by a round of Scrabble, the family circus tricks were in full swing. John, who swears there is such a word as "furloin," had us bowled over with tears in our eyes, and at one point, I noticed, wow, this is my family. Why has it been so long?

The next evening brought us to El Siboney, a Cuban diner loved by locals, and we chowed down over black beans and rice, fried plantains and an assortment of meaty entrees. By this point, John had decided to stay in Key West and find work; in fact, he showed up late for dinner after his first day on the job delivering AT&T phone books. Mom ordered a glass of the house Chablis and declared it tasted like cat pee. The camera clicked some more. Even though we were stuffed to the gills,we rallied for dessert and drove over to Flamingo Crossing, one of the best local ice cream shops I've ever come to know, and we sat outside licking our cones while John, who can't sit still for more than five minutes, went to the curb to buff his truck with a towel.

Wednesday night's supper was at Mo's Restaurant, a delightful café with Caribbean accents. Tim ordered the oxtail, which delighted Christella, the Haitian woman who lovingly cooks all the food behind the counter with her husband. It's a small space in need of sprucing up, but it's as cozy as being at home, and in no time, we were laughing again,with tears in our eyes, as we sipped Christella's lemonade flavored with vanilla. At this point, John had finished two phone book routes and was feeling pretty pleased with himself. Tim reminded him to keep his ego in check and that he was still new to town, buddy.

It was my hope that before we parted ways on Saturday that we gather for a home-cooked meal. Tim and I would cook, as per usual, and we'd sup at the home of Tim's new lady friend, Miz D.

Yesterday afternoon, Tim and I headed for the supermarket, where we created our menu while cruising the aisles. After discovering sour oranges in the produce section, I decided to include them in a marinade for three whole chickens that we'd butterfly and rub with garlic, olive oil and spices.

For the pork tenderloins, Tim thawed a bunch of pineapple pulp and to that, we added soy sauce, Indonesian chili sauce, sesame oil, ginger and some more of that sour orange juice. For sides, we decided on steamed rice with toasted pine nuts and Szechuan-style green beans, which are easy to make in large quantities.

Normally, dessert would feel like too much on a weeknight, but this night felt special, festive and historic, so I settled on chocolate Guinness cake, which if you have a spring form pan, is easy baking given its stovetop preparation.

By 6:30 p.m., the fixings were coming together, and the family had arrived. While Tim shuttled meat from grill to kitchen, I dug up platters and our feast was spread out on the dining room table. Everything looked beautiful. Before the chicken went out, I nibbled on a piece just to make sure everything was okay, and I was simply blown away. The sour orange held magical powers I had long dreamed about, and everyone couldn't get over how intensely flavored, juicy and soul-stirring the chicken was.

So here we were, spread out among two tables, chowing in earnest, picking at food on the platters and laughing like nothing else in the world mattered. The energy was like a ray of light on this very rainy evening.

As plates began to clear, I got up and whipped up a quick cream cheese icing for the cake, for which there was much cheering. Tim made strong coffee, and we lingered on a little bit longer, hoping we could make this evening last and etch it in our mind's eye. It's anyone's guess when we'll sup again, but here's what I'll be thinking on my flight home tomorrow: No matter what happens, we'll always have dinner.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 14, 2007; 10:27 AM ET Family , Kitchen Musings
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Thank you for sharing such a heartwarming entry with us today. You have had quite a year with Tim being ill (and recovering), getting married and now John reconnecting with you. I hope the joy continues for you next year.

Posted by: 20010 | December 14, 2007 11:54 AM

Why did you make a cake that included Guinness in the recipe if your brother has had drug problems in the past?

Posted by: Debbie | December 14, 2007 2:16 PM

lovely pre-Christmas family gathering. was Mr. MA a part of the scene?

Posted by: SSMD | December 14, 2007 2:46 PM


Your honesty and wit brought tears to my eyes! Happy New Year to you and yours!

Posted by: Maya | December 14, 2007 4:28 PM

Thank you for sharing this story. Most of us have some dysfunction in our families and it's nice to hear how you were able to move beyond the past and just enjoy each other's company for the holidays.

Posted by: Allison | December 14, 2007 5:38 PM

After reading your comments on your brother, you might go look deeper into your family an its dynamic.

As for me, I have read your blog for over a year, and I am never reading it again.

Posted by: David | December 15, 2007 7:13 PM

Wow, there's an awful lot of animosity going on there, "David." Guess none of us should be honest about our families' inevitable issues & problems? I thought it was a great entry & hope the whole O'D clan has a great holiday!

Posted by: longtime kim fan | December 16, 2007 6:52 PM

It sounds as if you had a wonderful time.
Please disregard the less than nice comments above. We, who are really fans of K. O'D., appreciate your blog. We all have things that happen in life that we wish had not, we should all be as gracious and move on as you have. Happy Holidays!!

Posted by: Steubenville | December 17, 2007 11:32 AM

We just moved from Key West and this entry brings it all back! Sounds like you hit all of our favorite places and avoided all the tourist traps...hope you had some good cuban coffee while you were there as well.

Posted by: erouscg | January 1, 2008 8:47 AM

Thank you for this story and all the stories you have shared with us in the past. I have never posted a comment to any blog, but the nasty comments from "David" and others made me want to thank you and ask that you continue. I cannot understand why someone would never again read your blog because your brother had a drug problem??? I think we are all grateful that "David" is an ex-reader. An anonymous forum certainly gives people the nerve to write things they would never have the nerve to actually say in person. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 2, 2008 4:22 PM

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