Sunday Dinners and a Simple Roast Beef

roast beef with gravy, noodles and a tomato and cucumber salad

I remember Sunday dinners when I was young. My father worked 6 days a week, so Sunday was the only day that provided us a full day to relax, get things done, and spend time together. For my father, it was also the day to read a massive Sunday version of the Boston Globe, cover to cover including all the magazines. But it also usually meant church in the morning, and then a rushed drive home, so my mother could get Sunday Dinner cooking.

What did you do after church?

While we certainly dragged our feet, tested my mother’s patience, and confirmed that my father could tell time as we prepared to rush out the door church on a Sunday morning. Our trip home from church was always a bit more leisurely. Maybe we’d stop at the outdoor fruit stand just around the corner from the church, and across Rt 28 from the popular North Reading mainstay, Kitty’s.

Open air fruit market
While the prices and exterior view don’t match, this looks like the place! Photo by Caio on

Or some weeks we’d stop by Ryer’s Store (my father knew it from childhood as “Molly’s”). Bill Ryer was always behind the candy counter, giving the kids a hard time, knowing most of us by name, and impatiently helping us to select our penny candy

One of my other favorite parts of Ryers was the geese and ducks kept behind the store, in a pen with a little duck house, much like the one we had in our own yard. We could throw bread to the birds, see the baby chicks, and enjoy the cool breeze under the trees out there.

two pekin ducks
Very similar to the ducks behind Molly Ryers. Photo by Burak K on

Penny candy, a promise to keep kids quiet in church

From rootbeer barrels to squirrel nut bars to wax lips and juice bottles nips, or those sugar-charged pixie sticks, the choices were endless. And ten cents could go far if you played it right! Ryer’s was an old-time shop my father, uncle, and many people growing up in North Reading knew, from decades in the town. We were even invited upstairs to the residence on a couple occasions to say hi since the family wanted to see Bud’s kids” Both the fruit stand and the Kitty’s restaurant belonged to families of kids we saw in school every day.

colorful candy
What candies do you remember? Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

North Reading in the 60s was a family-owned kind of town. No chain restaurants, shops, or businesses, except perhaps the Giant grocery chain, now Stop and Shop, or the Zayre’s department store (now part of the TJ Maxx family of stores). Zayres opened at some point, and eventually closed when the entire shopping center went dark and got bought out by a tech company. We also knew the family who owned the Gonzalves store, with their backward sign, where my fatger sold wooden doll cradles he made. One of the Gonzalves’ sons wrote me a valentines poem, enclosing it in a book of lifesaver candies one year. Making your own valentines card was was part of our Valentine’s Day projects that year. And we knew the family who owned Jones Hardware, another store with a backward sign if I remember correctly. My father also knew the family who owned the gas station near my uncle’s house. It was a small town. And for my mother at least, a promise of penny candy from the local store after church, usually guaranteed somewhat quiet, somewhat well-behaved children in the pews on Sunday morning. 

Well-behaved children you say?

I say “somewhat” because my youngest brother was known to interpret “well-behaved” as just meaning quiet. Back in those days, men wore hats to church. Not baseball caps, or beanies, but proper dress-up woolen or straw fedoras. Women had to keep their heads covered during the mass, but men usually took their hats off. For convenience sake, they set them on the deep black window ledges under all the stained-glass windows at the end of each pew. My brothers also wore hats to church. My mother usually hung onto those hats during the service. She usually grabbed them off my brothers heads after my father left our seat money with another of our uncles as we entered the church.

But I distinctly remember one Sunday, when my youngest brother got up silently from one of the rear pews (my mother purposefully sat us at the back) and decided to try on a nearby hat. A few people glanced over and smiled or looked horrified depending on where they stood with the whole kids being “seen and not heard” thing. But then he saw more hats sitting on each window, and proceeded to add another to his head, and another, and another.

little boy in striped fedora
He may have been a bit older than this boy, but not by much! Photo by Pixabay on

I think he had about 5 hats piled on his head before my mother, with the quiet stealth of a parochial school nun, crept up to him, grabbed him in a way that locked both arms to his side, and whisked him, minus the hats, out to the car to sit in un-air-conditioned silence until mass was over. I’m thinking that was a day we did NOT stop for penny candy. 

It wasn’t the first time my brother demonstrated his own style of “good” behavior in church. There was another Sunday when he decided to imitate soldiers being shot out of pews. Standing up on the space at the end of the pew, he clutched his chest and fell backward in agony. Being so little, I don’t think many saw his death fall, but my mother certainly did. I believe at that point she thought we may all need to move back to the infant room to watch the service through a glass wall. But by the next weekend we’d redeemed ourselves.

But Sunday Dinner is canceled for no man (or child)

Every Sunday we’d arrive home to a whirlwind of activity. Peeling vegetables, seasoning whatever meat was going to serve all of us (seasoning is a loose term here, my mother pretty much just used salt and pepper) and then mashing potatoes (rice or any other starch made a rare appearance). Vegetables were left to boil in their pot of water while the meat roasted. Basically cooked to within an inch of their lives.

But at noon, or maybe 12:30 if my grandfather was showing up, we’d stop what we were doing and sit around the maple table in our kitchen to have dinner together. One of my brothers still has that table, and I still have an embroidered napkin or two. But most days we’d use “the queen’s tablecloth” which was like the Emperor’s new clothes… all in the imagination!

maple topped table
Not ours, but the same clean lines. Our chairs were puppy-chewed, and the table had multiple leaves to open it up wide. Photo by cottonbro on

We’d chat about what we were doing in school, what things were happening in the news, we’d sing, we’d laugh, and I remember quite a few debates with my grandfather at that table, arguing whichever side he wasn’t on. When he’d had enough, he’d push his chair back, hand me a $20 bill and let us know he was ready to head home, or he’d ask to start an endless round of checkers. He always won.

In my own home today, there are no children to discuss school, and usually, far more projects than would have been acceptable back in the 60s, let alone allow time for a game of checkers. But I still love that traditional “meat and potatoes” meal every once in a while. Last week, I decided to cook a roast in honor of those days. It would provide food for us for the week. I had a bottom round roast newly thawed, and decided to pull out the slow-cooker to create a Sunday Dinner for any day!! It’s way easier than when my mother used to make those Sunday roasts, and it’s a bit more flavorful in the way of spices. I hope you enjoy it with your family.

Slow-cooker Roast Beef with Coffee and Red Wine

I’ve been told by more than one person that they’re “grandma’s” famous roast beef included coffee as the secret ingredient. In this recipe I decided to add a secret ingredient of my own, red wine! It makes for a rich, tasty gravy and a deliciously juicy roast. Just don’t get caught cooking it for too long. It can overcook, and while not exactly dry, end up being a bit chewier than you might like!


  • 3 – 4 pound bottom or top round roast or even chuck roast
  • 5 – 6 cloves garlic
  • 10 oz strong coffee
  • 6 oz glass of red wine
  • 1 bunch of fresh thyme

For the gravy:

  • 4 TB flour or corn starch
  • 1/4 cup milk, cream, or half and half
  • salt and pepper to taste

Keep in mind that bottom roast is much leaner than chuck roast, so adding a bit of fat (like the cream) isn’t going to add a significant amount of fat, and will create a luscious creamy gravy.

roast in slow-cooker before being browned
I realized too late that I should have browned the roast


  • With a sharp knife, cut 5 – 6 slits around the sides of the roast. Push the whole cloves of garlic into the slits so they are even with the meat.
  • In a hot skillet, brown your meat on all sides over high heat so you have a good sear
  • Place the roast in the slow-cooker, and deglaze the skillet with a splash of red wine, saving the browned results for use in your gravy
  • Mix wine and coffee together and pour over the roast
  • Sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves
  • Cook for 6 hours on low, checking at the 5-hour mark with a meat thermometer for your preferred “doneness”
  • When the roast is done, remove from the slow-cooker and reserve 2 – 3 cups of liquid and any brown bits (depending on how much gravy you want) in a separate bowl

Making the gravy

  • Using 1/4 cup of additional hot liquid, whisk in your flour to create a roux.
  • Place the reserved liquid from the pot into a saucepan, over low heat. Whisk roux and dairy into the saucepan. Add salt and pepper to taste, and additional thyme if desired. Adjust flour or cornstarch as necessary to obtain the thickness of gravy you prefer.

You live and learn in this life. I didn’t realize that the cut of beef I used is the leaner version and so I should have most definitely seared it off before putting in the cooker in order to retain juices. I also flipped it at the 4 hour mark, but should really have done that at the three-hour mark and checked the internal temp to avoid a well-done roast. Although in many houses (including the one I grew up in) meat is always cooked til it’s well-done. In any case, this roast was a great dinner, then lunch the next day, and serviced cut up with a mixture of vegetables, some broth and a packet of rice noodles for lunch on a third day. I was tempted to use the final bit chopped with some melted cheese for a roast beef bomb but so far that hasn’t happened. Whatever you choose to do with yours, be creative and enjoy!

roast beef with gravy, noodles and a tomato and cucumber salad
Egg noodles with gravy mean a special dinner to me!

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