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?