Dinner Tables: Food and Community, part 3

For pretty much as long as I remember, the dinner table in my house growing up was always a place of conversation. Long after the plates were cleared, the leftovers were dished out into individual portions, the pantry was raided for some kind of dessert, even if it ended up being a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, we’d sit and talk and talk and sit.

Then I went away to college.

On breaks, when we’d sit down for a meal together, the sitting and the talking got even more involved. Of course I had to find out what was going on in every branch of the family, every long-lost friend’s life; I had to hear every “you’ll never believe when I tell you this” incident.

Now, in my grown-up life, I still like to sit and talk after meals. J likes to get the dishes done. This used to be a point of contention between the two of us until we worked out a compromise: I sit and talk; he clears the table and does the dishes. It might sound like he gets the rough end of the bargain, but the truth is, (a) it makes him happy to have the dishes done and (b) it makes me happy not to have to move after I’ve eaten (and (c) I do get up and help after awhile–goodness gracious). It’s not just about sitting after I’ve eaten, though I suppose there’s something about good digestion in there, too, but the real “work” of the sitting is the conversation. So for us the conversation continues as he stands at the sink in his food-and-dish-soap-splashed apron. (This has gotten slightly more difficult in the new house, since the kitchen and the dining room are separate, but we’re managing.)

And I really like this time we have together, talking and sitting, doing dishes and talking.

Tonight, for various reasons, including an electricity outage on our street right before we had someone arriving for dinner, we ended up packing up all the food we’d prepared and going over to our guest’s house to cook the food there. (I say “we” prepared the food, but I had little to do with it. J made pasta and sauce and cut up veggies; our housemate and friend A made a delicious apple granola crumble for dessert.) We had a good meal and a nice visit, but J and I had to run out after the meal to get back to the house (where power had been restored) because a different friend was coming over to help with the last two very-difficult-to-place pieces of drywall in the bathroom.

I didn’t like rushing out after dinner. It didn’t feel like a complete meal somehow, even though we had such an excellent dessert. Maybe it’s because we left the dishes in the sink for someone else to wash. Maybe because we didn’t get to sit and talk and talk and sit. Maybe.

A friend of mine who knows of my interest in community and domesticity and poetry and  food sent me a link to a Writer’s Almanac poem of the day from a few weeks ago. It’s called “Perhaps the World Ends Here” and the first line opens up beautifully: “The world begins at a kitchen table.”

Joy Harjo, the poet, captures the lovely and beautiful as well as the heartache and change associated with conversations around the table, around shared food. I was reminded of sitting around the table with J’s elderly grandparents a few weekends ago, which I mentioned before. All those involved in infant and toddler childcare duty had stepped away from the table, and I got a glimpse of conversations and memories I’d never heard before, probably things that hadn’t been talked about in decades. It was lovely. Why is it that these things always come out around the table?

Perhaps the World Ends Here” is a prayerful, sacramental poem about thankfulness and epiphany moments, but it’s about babies teething on the corners of tables, too, and also the delicacy and pain of discussing funeral arrangements while sitting among loved ones. It’s a successful poem because it resonates with lived experiences, at least my own. (Because I’m keenly aware of copyright violations, I won’t reprint the poem, but I recommend clicking here to read it yourself.)

I know not everyone’s experiences are the same as mine. Some people never sit at the dinner table. Some people don’t eat homemade food at all. I had a friend in high school who had never seen the oven used at his house. But I wonder if something else “stands in” for the table in those families. I don’t know.

I’m curious, though: What’s the kitchen table mean to you?


4 comments on “Dinner Tables: Food and Community, part 3

  1. faithc says:

    Growing up, our meals at the kitchen table were somewhat sporadic. It was our catch-all. Mail, Bills, groceries that needed to be put away. Mom and I would carve out a little corner for us to sit at on occasion, but mostly we would eat in the living room.
    I think that’s why I’m so adamant about having a “cleared” dining room table and eating at the table…and talking at the table.

  2. Christi Hemati says:

    Liz, I think you would love the way Claire has formed our mealtime conversations around the table. After the prayer for the food, as soon as Claire notices a lull in the conversation, she promptly pleads, “Mommy, tell me a story about when you were a little girl.” And I follow by telling her as many stories from growing up as I can remember. She’s already heard several of them many times, and often asks me to tell some of her favorites again. She listens until I can’t remember anymore, and then she turns to Russ and asks the same of him. It’s just been so wonderful sharing so many stories with her so early. She’s also gotten really into Bible stories and theology lately, so she asks for stories about Jesus as well. As I tell stories to her, I often long to have the literary, story-telling talents that my literature friends like you and Alisha have, but I think I’m getting better, and Claire doesn’t know the difference. 🙂

  3. Jessica Schwartz says:

    I love this post! I love the poem as well. I also love hearing about Claire in Christi’s comment 🙂

    Joel grew up eating dinner every night at the kitchen table. I didn’t; if we ate at the table it meant we were either having a special home-cooked meal for ourselves after church or we had guests eating with us. Otherwise, we were eating at TV trays in front of the TV (ugh! talk about conversation-killer…) or everyone was grabbing dinner on their own schedule due to soccer practice, school events, etc.

    I have come to LOVE meals at the table when I’m together with my in-laws. It’s the time when everyone is guaranteed to come together in the same room and talk. Typically, we all will linger before cleaning up the dishes, and typically (as Joel will tell you), I’m the last one of the Schwartzes to be getting up from the table 🙂

    J & I are pretty bad about doing this for ourselves right now, but I feel really strongly about both home-cooked meals AND dinner at the table when we have kids.

    This is my favorite part of the poem:

    Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms
    around our children. They laugh with us at our poor
    falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back
    together once again at the table.

  4. elizabeth says:

    Wow, friends. Thanks for sharing these memories. I like the way you link them to your habits (or perhaps compulsiveness) in your world today.

    J & I often find ourselves carving out space at our table to eat! I wish we could keep it cleared, but alas, sometimes it’s impossible. But we still sit and eat together, even if it’s only cereal in the morning.

    I love what you’ve shared. Claire must have such an inquisitive mind. I miss your lovely family very much.

    As the upcoming semester gets underway, I have a hunch that it will be a discipline (maybe even a spiritual discipline!) to make time together a priority, eating together, talking together. It will only get more difficult when you add kids with their busy schedules to the mix. Maybe we can make it a norm, an expectation, for them, too. TV-trays are definitely not fun, but J and I have been known to do it, too. We watched all 10 seasons of FRIENDS that way!

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