Years ago when I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, we talked about physical structures that resemble certain ideologies. For example, a tall skyscraper usually contained the office of the most important CEO : at the top with the best views that overlooked the city below. Lofty, in the sky, above, imposing: all associated with being at the tippy top of the ferris wheel . Similarly a circular seating arrangement where all sit equally around a table connotes co-operation, looking people directly in their eyes, not down on them. Collaboration versus coercion, perhaps.
Thinking about that shape reminded me of our dinner table when the kids were young. It was a loud and boisterous place, each one vying for their chance to be heard, to argue, to explain or expound on an idea, or just to relate the day’s happenings at school. It was raucous and understandably rather intimidating to their friends who might drop in for dinner, their heads swinging from speaker to speaker who had seized the moment to proclaim his or her views.
When I visited my cousins in Los Angeles some summers when I was young, there was no definite time for supper where we all gathered. We grabbed something from the frig, found a spot , often with friends or siblings and “hung out”. I delighted in munching bags of chips in my oldest cousin’s room, a cubbyhole at the front of the house, The Smothers Brothers a backdrop to our chats. It was “ cas(ual)”, no one requiring attendance at a particular time or spot. As a teenager, I didn’t mind as lessening of rules and protocols fit nicely with my explorations as a burgeoning adolescent.
One woman I knew had her kids in so many activities that supper time occurred in the car, driving around in circles, dropping off or picking up kids. The story followed that the children had to be awoken at 4 am to do their homework as the preponderance of after school enrichment classes left no time for formal eating. She reported that they ingested so much lettuce that their skin actually moved towards that sickly shade- until she augmented with carrots. Might I add this woman who was at the cutting edge of most trends was a bit!!!!compulsive and obsessive; but I suppose she felt a supper in the car with all the kids was better than not gathering them all together.
But for me, there is something wonderful about gathering at a table for a meal. Sitting at the table, exchanging thoughts, listening to one another, offering conjecture promotes thoughtful dialogue and teaches respect. Where else is there a place to share the problems of the day : that someone had gotten under your skin; or conversely, to express the excitement at learning a new skill: a recognition of a talent; help, support, an encouraging nod; or simply a smile. To sit quietly and observe the fleeting expressions that glaze over your children’s eyes or notice a new habit or meme. The table is a spot for observation and interaction and response to those you love as you push away the rigours of everyday work.
The rise of cooking shows suggests a return to delight in contemplating, preparing, sharing and consuming a meal with others. Although often focused on competitions such as in Chopped or Master Chef, the end result, nonetheless, is an edible treat composed and created for the pleasure of someone or self: in design and taste and texture. As well, the attention to foods that have been overlooked, forgotten or smothered in sauces is illuminating. Not to mention the attention given to expanding the knowledge of our taste buds as cultural accents and spices are infused to augment the routine into extraordinary.
When I was young and pregnant, I followed Adele Davis who was an early guru for healthy eating. Later, when I was married and entertained, I drew upon Julia Child’s recipes, especially her wondrous coco vin which required easily a day of finding the special required ingredients and preparing every element just so. Course upon course was created and balanced in accordance with the recipe and I recall being exhausted by the time the evening was done, but feeling triumphantly proud at the results. And usually the kitchen smells that laced our apartment prolonged the sensibilities of Saturday night guests. Great satisfaction for the cost, work and attention to detail!
At holidays or birthday celebrations, there is nothing so wonderful as the combined presence of family around a table set with my grandmother’s china and silver, bright flowers centring the chaos of children talking, eating, demonstrating the latest school song or dance routine in the midst of serving course number three or four. The food in a sense becomes redundant as the family sits together and communicates and gossips and jokes with one another, recalling for me the days of their childhood so many years ago. Grievances, laughter, squabbles all combine into the symphony where the food is only the backdrop, the occasion for purposefully coming together.It is no wonder that Joseph Campbell lauded the need for rituals that mark significant moments in our lives. Here too exists the paradox of the mundane establishing a corner stone for something greater than itself.
Although I must now always apologize for a not perfectly seasoned dish, a slightly askew pie, the bitterness of a vegetable, it matters little. The purpose has been served and I imagine all the dinners where lit by candlelight or electric light bulb, my relations also came together and conversed over a meal. As a child, I did not know that the meal was merely a prelude to play with my cousins whom I adored, especially the older boys who knew how to tumble and yell and avoid the scourge of parents and grandparents upstairs. We were forging pleasurable memories that lit up my childhood and dug deep feelings of love for some of my cousins.
As a grandmother now, at my birthday table, I savour these moments with my children and grandchildren, wanting the feeling to last like chewing as long as possible on some delicious morsel so it will not disappear down my gullet. I want to take it all in, enlarge it and hold on to it tightly – as they all go their separate ways, only reuniting for a meal now and then.