As Logan caught up on Lil's new job, Ann peeked in the oven at the cheese biscuits and Don wrangled a small mountain of kale in a saucepan for his famous kale dish.
Then Norman escaped from the pantry where they'd stowed him — Norman is a cat — which prompted Ann to show friends Nancy and Mark how Lil taught Norman to respond to, "Sit," which he didn't, which made everyone laugh.
This scene, more or less, has been going on once a week.
For 30 years.
Two Minneapolis households — that of Ann and Don Luce, and of Nancy Gaschott and Mark Ritchie — have seen each other through job changes and house changes, through weddings and funerals, through children's graduations and one child's death.
Put that way, their routine sounds no different from how many families meander through life connecting with neighbors or with families from school. But we also know how those relationships shift as people move and kids grow up.
That didn't happen here, and that's worth noting.
But first, the families had their own discussion about going public.
"We were a little self-conscious about it," Nancy said. Would readers misunderstand their motives, think them smug, as if they'd invented sliced bread?
"We talked about what Family Dinner was and what it wasn't," Ann said. "Is this an important thing to share, and why?"
In the end, they believe that their story makes a point about community, about being intentional, about being there for others — even about trying new recipes.
"And," Don added, "we realized it had been 30 years."
Setting a priority
When Rachel Ritchie was 3 years old, her preschool teacher was Ann Luce.
"They just fell in love with each other," her mother, Nancy, recalled. When Ann asked the Ritchie family over for supper, the two couples hit it off. "Neither of us had any immediate family in town," she added. "So we became each other's extended family."
They began sharing the occasional dinner, and celebrated birthdays for their growing families; the Luces had Lillian, then Logan, then Athelas, and the Ritchies had Rachel. When the Ritchies lived in Belgium for six months, the Luces came to visit.
Then, 30 years ago, something prompted someone — memories fade — to suggest an unusual experiment: Share a family meal every week, with each taking turns as host.
"The thing about it," Ann said, "we didn't just say, 'Let's have dinner together,' but we said, 'Let's do it every week.' It's just an expectation."
The rules were simple. The meal would be nice. They would hold hands and say grace before eating. The cooks also would also clean up, letting the "guest" family relax.
The key was being intentional and making the ritual a priority.
It wasn't easy.
Their lives, for the record: Ann founded the Bright Water Montessori School in north Minneapolis, worked with literacy programs in Minneapolis Public Schools and now is a teacher leader at Sweet Pea Montessori in Minneapolis. Nancy was the project manager when the Loft Literary Center evolved to Open Book and now is an organizational consultant. Don is curator of exhibits at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Mark, a former Minnesota secretary of state, is active in rural issues and was working to bring the World's Fair here in 2023.
At some point this ritual became known as Family Dinner, which everyone says with implied capital letters.
The nights shifted according to when the most people could attend. And let's be honest: They missed some weeks for vacations, or when their most valiant efforts were thwarted. As the kids grew older and busier, "sometimes it was just the four of us," Ann said. Which was fine.
But what surprised them was how rarely they missed a week. And while they've been firm about not adding other families, Family Dinner has been open to individuals: exchange students, kids' classmates, the old friend passing through. On one recent evening, the table included Sarah Milstein, a friend of Nancy's godson, Matthew Sikkink Johnson, who couldn't attend.
"I think it's important how you've invited other people in for periods of time," Lil Luce Erickson told the older adults while sitting next to another addition, her husband, Thomas.
"These dinners," Mark said, "have been a tapestry."
Supporting in grief
Over the years, the couples have seen each other through the deaths of their parents. Jobs have changed, addresses have shifted. Pets have included cats, dogs, ducks and an iguana.
In 2000, tragedy came to the table. Rachel Ritchie, about to turn 21, was struck and killed by a drunken driver. Despite 13 years of Family Dinners, her death seemed almost too overwhelming to overcome.
Even this evening, after checking the seasoning on the chicken, Ann looked across the kitchen at Nancy before speaking.
"I wondered," she began, then paused. "I wondered if, after Rachel passed, if it would be hard. Or if it would be important to keep going."
"Oh!" Nancy said, almost before Ann finished, "it was really important."
Then in walked Lil and Thomas, setting off another round of hugs and a return to the present.
"I love these Brussels sprouts," Ann said, spearing one from a dish. "Did you pickle them?
"No, but I acquired them," Nancy replied, with mock pride.
Now, in Year 31, the question of whether the young adults will one day host is in the air, "but we don't have a house that's big enough yet," Lil said.
Certainly, the kids have grown up appreciating the joys of a meal prepared with care.
"I don't remember anyone ever ordering pizza," said Logan Luce.
"Not that we couldn't have," Mark said.
"But no one did," replied Logan.
Logan, a chef for SiMpls in Minneapolis, brought part of the dessert, a pound cake loaf studded with dried cherries, candied ginger and pine nuts, complementing his mom's pears poached in a saffron-cardamom syrup.
"Cooking for friends is something that's important to me because I saw them do it week after week," he said.
Also, he added, a pro tip from Nancy: "You make twice-baked potatoes when you have a lot of odd bits of cheese."
Making it happen
So there it is. Family Dinner. Nothing especially earth-shaking about it, except that it happens.
And yet, these days, happening counts.
When families find themselves in different geographies, nearby friends can fill an emotional gap.
When busy and fulfilling lives nevertheless compete with the joy of a simple meal with friends, the decision to commit to each other is a powerful statement.
When a generation witnesses the security of unconditional friendship, the future seems less formidable.
When you share food with others — even kale; or maybe especially kale — you can't help but leave satisfied in many ways.
"It's a funny priority," Ann said of Family Dinner, then added with a smile, "but it's a priority."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185