When Jacki Dunning sits down on Christmas Day, with upwards of 30 family members for a daylong feast, weed soup will highlight the menu.
But it’s not as grim as it sounds. The dish, a chicken broth-based soup with tiny meatballs, carrots and dandelion, came down from her grandmother, who taught the dish to Jacki’s mother.
“This is the course I’m responsible for each year,” Jacki said. “We still have the same menu my grandparents served when I was a child, the menu my father and his siblings grew up with.”
In her home on Wade Road and at the Shelter Island School where she has worked for eight years, Jacki is a tradition-keeper, a problem-solver and as vital a link between generations of Shelter Island School children as in her own large family.
She grew up in Seaford, the youngest of four children in a big, loving Italian family.
As a senior at MacArthur High School, she met a 10th grade guy in the lunchroom eating Oreos. “I thought he was such a jerk,” Jacki said. The smart aleck was Kevin Dunning, and Jacki discovered they rode the same school bus. “We started talking, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh I really like him.’”
Dumplings were soon deployed as a romantic strategy. “Kevin’s favorite meal, and one of my mother’s specialties, was sauerbraten with German potato dumplings called kartoffelkloesse,” Jacki said.
After 10 years of long-distance courting, Jacki and Kevin married in 1994, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary earlier this month.
After high school, Jacki went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and then on to a 10-year career at Revlon, starting as a secretary and working her way up to sales promotion, writing the scripts and information support for the sales staff.
Jacki and Kevin became a family of four as Matthew came along in 1996 and Elizabeth in 1998. Matthew graduated last year from the Shelter Island High School and is a freshman at St. Johns in Queens. (For now he won’t stray too far — “Matthew is addicted to my Tuscan tuna bread salad.”) Elizabeth (eggplant parmesan), is a junior at the high school.
Matthew’s birth marked the beginning of a new life for Jacki, in a place she never intended to be. “He’s the reason I left Revlon,” Jacki said. When he was three months old, Jacki and Kevin were preparing to move to a house up-island, minutes away from their parents, when Kevin proposed a change of plan.
“He said, ‘I have this great opportunity on Shelter Island,’” Jacki remembered. She agreed to move with the provision that they’d find a permanent home on the North or South Fork. Not on Shelter Island, because with a three month old, “The whole ferry thing was just beyond me,” she said.
They took a temporary rental on the Island so they could look for a house off-Island — a plan that 18 years later seems like a joke. “We fell in love with this place,” Jacki said.
Kevin built them a house, and Jacki started to live the Island life, volunteering as a classroom aide and serving on the pre-school board. In 2006, she took a paid part-time position working as a monitor at the school.
Within a few months, Jacki became secretary to Superintendent Sharon Clifford. In 2012, she was promoted to District Clerk, preparing the agenda and distributing the minutes of School Board meetings in a town where there is keen interest in every matter that comes before the board, due in part to the fact that about $10 million dollars of local property taxes fund the school. Jacki keeps the information flowing and sets up and oversees the budget votes.
She also smoothes the way for families coming to the school, answering their questions and working to “help make them feel safe and secure,” Jacki said. “Kindergarten parents, when they are first coming in, are scared. I want to be able to give them that comfort that the community gives in so many ways.”
There’s no better place than a public school to measure the shifting demographics of Island families. Over the years, Jacki has seen no change in the helpfulness and caring that has long characterized Island children. “It’s just this ray of sunshine,” she said. “We have the kindest children in our school. It’s a really beautiful place to raise your children.”
Jacki’s mother was diagnosed with lymphoma around the time of Elizabeth’s birth in 1998. The disease was treated and in remission for eight years, but when it returned, she didn’t have much time. Her last two years were difficult, but ultimately “one of the most beautiful experiences,” Jacki said. “I was able to spend a lot of time with her. My children were young but old enough to help me get through it. We openly mourned together — I wasn’t hiding things from them. We were honest about what was happening. My mom knew that and she appreciated it, for sure.”
In 2014, Matthew was on the Shelter Island boys basketball team that went further than any basketball team in the history of the school, winning the county championship.
”That was the most amazing experience as a parent,” Jacki said. “The fire department, the police department escorting their bus, those boys really felt the community support, I think it’s in the water. Don’t change the water!”
With Christmas coming, Jacki is in her glory. “Italian with grandmother- and mother-training, the kitchen is my favorite place in the house,” she said. “Homemade pasta with puttanesca sauce is on request for Matthew’s homecoming.”
Next Thursday, after Jacki’s weed soup, comes homemade pasta, one or two roasts, vegetables, salad and finally ”trays of cookies that my sister, cousins and I make, along with fruit and struffolli, fried balls coated with honey and nuts, another tradition of my mom’s. We’ll spend many hours together at the table enjoying this wonderful food and one another.”