Nestled amongst the maple trees off of Coddington Road, Priscilla Timberlake’s and Lewis Freedman’s cozy country house radiated warm light out into the chilly November night. For over twenty years, every Friday at 6:45pm about fifty people, an eclectic mix of friends, neighbors, colleagues, students and a handful of curious strangers, come together to share a home cooked, plant-based meal around candle-lit dinner tables. It’s best described as a giant, vegan, gluten-free family dinner, where the word “family” is employed loosely; in Priscilla and Lewis’s home, anyone and everyone is treated and fed like family.
I’d been hearing about this tradition since I arrived on campus last year, fables that Cornell’s walking meditation and yoga instructors open up their home for community dinners every single week, so my three friends and I from the Sun’s Dining Department decided to experience it for ourselves. After a twenty minute drive down some dark, winding roads, we kicked off our sneakers by the front door. I had just walked right into the home of perfect strangers for dinner. Wasn’t that exactly what my nervous parents always warned me not to do? But, there I was peeling off my coat unfazed, like I was walking into my cool, quirky aunt and uncle’s house for Thanksgiving.
We were told to make ourselves at home, offered hot tea and invited into the main room attached to the kitchen, where Priscilla and Lewis continued bustling around, taking this and that out of the oven, seasoning, dressing and plating. I looked around the living room, watching guests, listening to small talk, wondering which were weekly regulars and which were like me, experiencing this scene for the first time. I recognized a couple of faces in the mix, students that I knew I’d seen before on campus, but never made an effort to talk to. But here, settling down around tables clad in funky, printed linens, we all chatted like long-time friends.
When everyone had found a place, Priscilla announced the evening’s offerings. She began: “Your choices for the night include… that was a joke, there are no choices here,” to which laughter erupted from the guests. It’s true — though the hosts kindly accommodate allergies, you eat what’s being served. The menu is constantly changing with the seasons, so you get what you get and you don’t get upset; it’s part of the allure.
To start, hot broccoli soup, followed by the main course: a vibrant smorgasbord of creamy steamed squash, hearty greens with pecans and cranberries, a melange of cooked veggies with a rich peanut sauce, broiled corn polenta, a medley of vivid red root vegetables and, for good measure, a hefty scoop of brown rice and black beans.
My friends and I agreed that the vegetables with peanut sauce, the sweet, soft steamed squash and the crispy corn polenta stole the show. Finally, a decadent lemon, blackberry and almond swirl parfait topped with crunchy chopped nuts was the perfect end to a delicious meal.
As for the price, the hosts ask for a sliding scale donation (recommended $16-20 for students), which helps to keep this special tradition going and is well worth every dollar, considering the large quantity and the quality of the meal.
After dinner, I chatted with Priscilla and Lewis about everything from cooking techniques to the spirituality of food, to how they met and fell in love (right here at Cornell!). Lewis, a registered dietitian and I chatted about the health benefits of plant-based diets and the healing powers of food. I wondered how long they spend cooking in preparation for the meal, I figured it must take at least an entire day — which it does, they confirmed. It’s a great feat to host several dozens of friends and community members for dinner and to do it every single week seems almost inconceivable. It’s a lot of work, but they do it with incredible grace and astonishing composure. “We cook all day, but we get to hang out together, we listen to music, we have Alexa play Bob Dylan,” Lewis says, smiling.
They introduced me to their long-time friend Terry, who owns a little organic farm in the town of Danby, ten minutes south of Ithaca, where she grows vegetables and keeps pet chickens. A long-time gardener, she started farming in the 1990s and realized that she simply had more vegetables than she knew what to do with. “I really don’t make much of a profit off of it,” she explains, “I just do it to provide people with healthy, fresh food.” She brings Priscilla and Lewis fresh vegetables every Friday morning for the evening’s meal, so what’s presented on the plate is truly the freshest and most nutritious produce available, harvested, prepared and enjoyed within a matter of hours.
After a year subsisting exclusively on repetitive dining hall food and packages of Wegman’s veggie sushi, it was refreshing to sit down at an actual dinner table and eat a lovingly home-cooked meal, made with ingredients just plucked from the earth. I had never once set foot in the house before, nor had I met virtually any of the other guests, but sitting there felt natural, the conversations around the table were fluid and effortless.
These were people that I normally wouldn’t have shared a meal with. As busy students wrapped up in the chaos of campus life, we rarely find opportunities to engage with the unique, quirky greater Ithaca community around us. Many of the guests, old-time friends of Lewis and Priscilla, that have been attending dinners since before I was born, are people who I would normally never have the chance to interact with as I mosey along through my everyday Cornell routine.
Even among the guests whom I knew I’d seen before, maybe hiking up the slope or riding the TCAT, most of us had never acknowledged each other, let alone shared a conversation or a meal. Perhaps one afternoon we’d silently sit next to each other at Temple of Zeus in default of open tables, or stand side by side for twenty minutes waiting in line at Okenshields, but dining halls and campus cafes, quasi-study spaces where laptops are part of the place settings, don’t cultivate fuzzy feelings of community and intimacy. Friday dinners are a celebration of healthy, plant-based eating and delicious seasonal vegetables, but more than that, they bring people together in a really profound way. Everyone I have spoken with who has attended a dinner, young and old, vegan and non-vegan, routine guests and one-timers, have had the same reaction, saying something along the lines of: “The food is delicious, but what’s so special about Friday dinners is the sense of community.”
In their cookbook, which contains nearly one hundred delicious vegan and gluten-free recipes, Priscilla and Lewis have included a quote by Japanese scholar and healer, Michio Kushi:
“Peace does not begin with any political party, religious movement or social platform. It begins in kitchens and pantries, gardens and backyards, where the physical source of our daily life — food, the staff of our life, our daily bread — is grown and prepared.”
I think Friday dinners embody this philosophy in a very special way.