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The pandemic has changed so many things, but one thing food blogger, cookbook author, and chef MacKenzie Smith has been able to hold onto is Sunday dinner with her family.

Based in picturesque New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the Smith family owns and operates the Black Dolphin Inn, a boutique bed-and-breakfast. So once COVID hit, podding up was the only way forward: MacKenzie and her mom both cook at the inn (among other jobs), her dad is the general manager, and her brother is the assistant manager. Rounding out the pod is MacKenzie’s husband, Jeremy (a professional surfer and stay-at-home dad to their adorable daughter, Poppy), and also MacKenzie’s brother’s fiancée. The Smith crew spends plenty of time together on a daily basis, but they’ve made it a priority to carve out time on Sundays for a leisurely dinner that reminds them that they’re a family, not just a family business.

As part of our Sunday Cooking series, I caught up with MacKenzie to chat about comfort food, family time, and her inability to cook small portions of food.

Okay, let’s just jump right in: What does Sunday cooking mean to you?
Sunday cooking means family time. We have an unwritten rule in our family that every Sunday night is dedicated to dinner at my parents’ house. And we just make a big feast. We all bring something and we show up at like 5 o’clock and we normally just cook together and hang out and then do a big dog walk.

Sometimes we even get together earlier and go to the beach. We all work together, so it’s important for us to spend time not working. Sundays are the one time where we’re all together during the week where everyone is off from the hotel. It’s a time for us to reconnect as a family instead of a family business unit.

What kind of food is usually on the menu?
We’re big eaters, so there’s lots of comfort food. I’d say the most common theme is Southern food because we’re Southern and that’s what my mom always cooks and how she grew up. So there’s lots of Southern influence, but sometimes we do Chinese night or Mexican night. We like to switch things up. But the food is always hearty. And we always make a joke that like none of us know how to cook for like four people. Because every time we cook, it’s enough for everyone to bring home leftovers, have lunch for the next day or dinner or whatever. There’s lots of food. Always a ton. Way too much.

You’re used to cooking for the hotel guests, so it makes sense that you can’t cook small.
It’s so true. I don’t know how to do it. Luckily we have lots of adopted family members on our street who will gladly take leftovers, or my failed recipe attempts.

So is this Sunday dinner tradition similar to what you grew up with, or has it changed over the years?
Yeah, it’s actually really funny. We always did this growing up — on Sunday you just knew to be home. And then when I moved back to Florida several years ago, everyone was working at the hotel all the time and we just started noticing that we never had time together. So we literally hired another person so that we could do a Sunday family night.

Oh, I love that.
Yeah. So it felt really awesome to bring it back. And what’s even funnier is — I didn’t even realize I did this until recently — I always had Sunday dinners at my apartment in Brooklyn. I would invite friends over and we’d watch Game of Thrones or Curb Your Enthusiasm or whatever show was on at the time. So I was keeping the tradition alive, even with my adopted Brooklyn family. And the menu back then was always me testing out new recipes for either the blog or for my catering jobs. So I was always like, “You all eat this and tell me what you think.”

Are there go-to recipes at your Sunday dinners these days?
Yeah. So my mom has been making this meatloaf my whole life, so I’ve grown up with that recipe. When I started dating Jeremy and he started coming to family dinners, he became obsessed with my mom’s meatloaf. And it started to become this joke where he likes my mom’s food better than mine. So as part of his wedding vows, thanks to the meatloaf, he said, “I promise to like your food more than your mom’s.” And so it’s just been this joke. But it’s not really a joke.

That’s hilarious. What makes this meatloaf so memorable?
It’s just a solid, old-school meatloaf recipe. She does use oats, which I like, and there’s Trader Joe’s Sriracha Barbecue Sauce, which is kind of like a magic ingredient. That stuff’s just so good. And she always cooks it in my Mimi’s (my mom’s mom) cast iron skillet and then cuts it into pie slices, so it’s not like the normal loaf shape.

And as the founder of Grilled Cheese Social, I assume you often bring some sort of cheese-related dish to the party?
You know it. Mac and cheese is a staple dish. Back when my blog was all grilled cheese recipes, the only thing that I shared besides grilled cheese was mac and cheese — and those recipes were always very popular. Because of that I started deep diving into the world of mac and cheese and I came up with a smoked Gouda mac and cheese that everyone really liked. You can either use smoked cheeses that you can buy at the store or you can make the mac and cheese and then put it in the smoker. It’s easier to just buy a high-quality smoked cheese, though.

How do you know if you’re getting a good smoked cheese?
You should look for cheeses with a smoke ring on the outside, just like you would see in a smoked meat. Some high-quality smoked cheeses also have grate marks from sitting in the smoker. You just want to make sure that the cheese has been cold smoked rather than just having smoke flavoring added to it.

So back to Sunday dinners. Is there any kind of ritual to the meal?
It all starts on Monday morning, when my mom starts planning the menu on our family text. It’s so funny. She’s like, “All right, so what are we going to do this Sunday?” And I’m like, “Just chill. We’ll figure it out.” When Sunday comes, I’ll start cooking in the morning just so I have things prepped so that we can go to the beach or whatever during the day. But we normally get together at five and then we always eat at six.

The meal is very freestyle and casual. We don’t set the table. All the food is set out buffet-style. We all live right next to the beach and I live across the street from my parents, so after we eat we’ll take the dogs for a walk and end up at the beach. Getting outside for some fresh air is like a nice little nightcap before everyone goes home.

Nina Elder

Contributor

Nina Elder is the Executive Food Director at Kitchn. She’s passionate about snacks, baking, and well-written recipes. She lives with her husband and son (who is also passionate about snacks) in New York.





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