The Table Comes First


At an early age, former Gourmet magazine editor and bestselling author of Tender At The Bone, Ruth Reichl, discovered that “food is a way of making sense of the world. If you watched people as they ate and cooked you could find out who they were.”

I couldn’t agree more -and it all begins and ends at the table.

I can still imagine myself as a child, no more than three, perched under the large teak dining table at my grandmother’s house. Mom had long given up trying to convince me to sit alongside the large family huddled around it. I preferred my hideout, the perfect vantage for listening to the endless conversations from the adults as they ate. The long white tablecloth providing a dark tent to my seat, I would sit quietly, dodging guests’ feet so as not to be discovered. I can still see Grandma at the stove, stirring and tasting. Once everyone was served she would take a seat, and not a minute before. As everyone gabbed and gobbled, she would often hand me a roll with butter, serving me under the table with a wink and a finger to her lips.

It seems that whether we are seated at the head of the table or underneath it, its presence at meal time is essential to our appreciation of the food we eat.

Today, many households eat dinner in front of the television. As a community we appear to have forgotten the importance of eating together. I can appreciate how hard it is to have children sit at the table. I was one of the difficult ones. However, the simple practice of seeing adults eat together and learning to appreciate the magic of dinner debates is arguably a rite of passage. You can learn more about those you love from grunts and groans gleaned through mouthfuls at the dinner table than anywhere else. The amount of sharing that goes on at the table can be the best therapy, even when it ends in an argument. This appreciation of family and structure needs to start at a young age.

Food is of great importance these days. Fueling our obsession is the Food Network and reality cooking shows along with social media, which provides us with an easy way to communicate what we are eating. But the spirit of all this has not translated to the table. In fact, it is often at odds with the social nature. We appear consumed by photos of food rather than the memories of the clatter of voices surrounding eating or preparing it.

You can tell your story through food. If you wish to catalogue all of your experiences, you can do so by the meals you’ve eaten. Recipes are able to provide a symphony of characters just as photographs do for others. I am a collector of recipes from each country or home that I visit. I love to purchase cookbooks from local chefs of a particular region, forgoing the cliché souvenirs. But, my ongoing favorites are the worn out magazine clippings and slips of yellowing paper from family, friends and even strangers, such as the kiwi jam from a kind lady who once gave me a place to sleep while travelling. Each is a memory of where I’ve been. I see the places in my mind as I taste these recipes. I feel hot sand between my toes and the warm ocean spray while eating salty fish and chips and sipping a glass of smoky red pinot noir.

My husband and I learned the importance of the table early on, both in our homes growing up and when we started on our journey together. Our first purchase was a table, which was delivered minutes before a dinner party. It was small and sat six people, (truthfully four comfortably). The deliverymen had to lift it out and over our balcony to fit it into our tiny space. We dined on that story from this table for years. My daughter ate dinner with us long before she could hold her head up; she would sit in her baby bouncy seat on the tabletop while we ate. (Carefully watched, of course.) Even now, when it’s just the two of us home she will say, “Why is the table not set?” More often than not, you will find us dining at the table, hunkered over a meal, lost in conversation. While we don’t talk with our mouths full (most of the time) there is always discussion. In our home the table is not a quiet place.

A few years back, I had a table made for us out of recycled barn wood. The family name was etched underneath it as it came out of the shop. Many would consider sanding this away for aesthetics, but I am pleased that it is there. It is a reminder that this table is where our family meets. My grandchildren will hide under it so I can slip them treats. It will one day belong to my daughter and sit in her home. I am hopeful that she will remember that in our family, the table always comes first.

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