Big Snow means Big Slow — a good thing

Maybe you've shoveled too much snow by now, or tried to walk or drive down too many clogged side streets by now -- or worried too much about three feet of snow on your flat roof by now -- to appreciate the pace-reducing power of a big storm. But I still see it, and I still like it.

Big snow means Big Slow, if only for a day or three, and that's a virtue that gets lost in a mess like the one nature just dumped on us.

I have always appreciated big snow for the day off it might bring and for the promise that I'll be out there, leaning on a snow shovel and actually having a conversation with a neighbor I haven't seen since last summer's block party, or because I might get to talk with the neighbor's son who seems to have grown a foot since the last time he passed me on the sidewalk.

Maybe I'll have time to do something for which I wouldn't otherwise make time -- or for which the busy schedule of modern life doesn't seem to allow.

Slowing down has been a lot on my mind anyway because of two people I've met in recent weeks -- a young woman from Philadelphia who thinks we need to spend more time writing personal letters and a Baltimore priest who thinks families should spend more time cooking and eating together.

There's a third reason: Julia Child's recipe for cassoulet, which I happened to read the other day as the storm approached, thinking I'd cook up something comforting for the family.

It will seem quaint or endearing to most people these days -- many of whom have barely enough time to eat ,never mind cook -- but the late, great chef's recipe for classic cassoulet, the ultimate French comfort food, takes three days to prepare.

"The following recipe," Ms. Child wrote in 1968, in "The French Chef Cookbook," "makes no attempt to cut corners, for the concoction of a good cassoulet is a fairly long process. You can prepare it in one day, but two or even three days of leisurely on and off cooking make it easier."

Three days for beans baked with meats?

The idea seems preposterous to most of us, who have a lot of things to do. Cell phones and social networking have added wonders to our lives, but they've also added an urgent sense of everything-now, everything-all-the time. And so we live a kind of on-the-run existence. We think we move at a leisurely pace, but more Americans than ever, thoroughly wired or thoroughly wireless, live life constantly connected in some way to the world of work, or a "network" that demands attention.

It takes an effort to pull away, to slow down and to make time for something that calls for time as its main ingredient.

Or it takes a snowstorm.

The Rev. Leo Patalinghug, a Catholic priest known as Father Leo, has tried to start a movement to get families to cook together and eat together. He calls it the Grace Before Meals Movement, and that's also the title of his book of recipes and wisdom. He thinks meal time is the only time in the crazy day for parents and kids to gather and connect in a meaningful way.

"Grace Before Meals is centered on one fundamental concept: The simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships," says Father Leo's Web site. "Research shows that having frequent family dinners can reduce the susceptibility of teens to risks like teen pregnancy, smoking, drug use and depression. And these benefits don't just apply to traditional families or people with kids. Stronger families foster stronger communities, and that's the goal we're striving for -- one meal at a time. ... We ask each family to make a commitment to taking part in eating together as much as possible."

Again, we like to think we're all in the habit of doing this, but it takes work. Meal time can slip away without much notice.

This past weekend, during the big storm, I ate every meal with my family -- breakfast, lunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday -- and I don't think that's happened in a while. Am I better for it? Let's just say I learned a few things that I had missed and, there being nothing else to do as the snow fell, the conversations were enjoyable and went on longer than normal.

The other person who's preaching from the gospel of slow is Samara O'Shea, who is a champion of the handwritten letter. Her book, "For The Love of Letters," provides a 21st Century guide to a dying art form.

Talk about quaint and endearing. How many of us actually take the time to sit with pen and paper, reflect and write a long letter to an old friend or family member? Who has time for this contemplative, intimate form of communication when there are a gazillion e-mails to answer and text messages arriving every few minutes?

How many of us have stopped making time to write thoughtful holiday cards at the end of each year?

The big snow forced me to deal with a stack of letters on my desk -- handwritten all, and from readers of this column, old friends, a couple of elderly relatives and a whole bunch of guys in prison. I've started answering them -- the ones to my elderly relatives first -- before it's too late.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.