At This Table

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Many moons ago (really, about 8 or so months), I sat on the bed in the narrow confines of my college dorm room, terra cotta bowl of breakfast fixings nestled in the crevice between my legs and my birds of paradise comforter, and vowed that when I finally moved on from this space – finally claimed a space of my own – I would have a kitchen table.

A simple vow, but powerful in its own small way.

For most of my college career, I ate my meals either in the larger kitchen space of the residence hall where I lived, or – when I needed a moment of peace – I escaped to my room. It should be noted that I was lucky to have a room in which I could eat by myself, as my position as a Resident Advisor offered me the kind of solace that only comes from being able to shut your door to the outside world. This meant that I often ate my meals with a self-imposed, casual monasticism on my bed, often while scrolling through the world of food writing in which I had emotionally invested myself by the time I was a sophomore. Inevitably, though, as I became more deeply interested in the culture of food and the way in which it affirms our own identities, the amount of time I spent strewing crumbs across my bedspread began to gnaw at me.

I longed for the kitchen table I grew up with, for the floral tablecloth and the mismatched china and the rushed, half-garbled prayers before meals, for the conversation like connective tissue webbing itself among my siblings and my parents as we detailed our days to one another in sentences punctuated by fork scrapes.  The imprecise manner in which napkins were flung and dishes passed from end to end; the lingering nibbles stolen directly from cooling cast-iron skillets or serving bowls as the meal wound down.

The kitchen table was in fact the only place where we were allowed to eat – meals in front of the television did not even merit a thought, and food in our rooms on days other than Christmas or Easter (when we were allowed to dive into milky chocolate Santas or rabbits at seven in the morning just to preserve my parents’ sanity) was strictly verboten.  I surmise that this was largely an effort on my parents’ part to keep the house from turning into a haven for candy wrappers and cookie crumbs, and my parents placed a firmly non-negotiable premium on sitting together as a family to share a meal when we could. Though that seems on the surface rather like experiencing food in a straitjacket, I will argue instead that it served to make the kitchen table itself something of a hallowed ground.  As such, food became something sacred and filling, and throughout the years in which I grappled with food as a necessary evil, checking off the potato chips I consumed in my diary each night, eating at the kitchen table made the consumption of food something not only permissible, but encouraged.

I am fuzzily aware that there have been studies done which suggest that eating meals with one’s family, actually taking the time – if it can be found – to share food with loved ones across a dinner table, can empower a child in a way little else can, merely because it grounds them to an identity that will carry them through the tumult of their teenage years.  It empowers them with a kind of confidence to share their experiences, a confidence that later informs the work that they do in school, and – by extension – the work they will do once they leave it.  Anchoring myself to my chair each evening in front of dishes my sister and I often helped my mother create was fundamental in granting me both an understanding of the world I came from, and an ability to articulate this world to others once I moved away.  I learned to translate my fledgling experience of adulthood – how I experienced passion, heartache, friendship, struggle and ultimately love – through the language of food.

More often than not, I insisted that food I made to be shared with others be eaten at a table, one of the slightly off-kilter metal ones spread throughout the floor of the communal residence hall kitchen.  Carrying plates and serving bowls to one of these little tables felt spiritual, and even if the food shared was a simple scrambled egg or two, there was a sanctity in the act of it. If the food I cooked for others functioned as an articulation of my feelings for them, then sharing that food over the expanse of a tabletop was an homage to the food itself, and to the roots traceable in each dish I made.

When Sam and I were in the process of moving in together, one of the few pieces of furniture I yearned for from his old apartment was the rounded wooden table which he had happened upon years ago at some long-forgotten thrift store back when Brooklyn was still budding.  Luckily enough, his roommate graciously offered it up to us, and away it went, sturdy segments pinioned tightly to the walls of the moving van we had rented.  We put it together the next evening, minutes before we surrendered ourselves to the jaws of a sleep deprivation-induced emotional break.  It was good to have the table there for us the next morning, a stalwart symbol of the roots we were putting down in this new space.

Since we’ve moved, I have made a point to eat most of my meals at this table, regardless of whether or not I am eating with someone. This is not undertaken without a certain amount of resolve, as some nights when I am tucking into my dinner alone, I am tempted to fold myself under my covers and stay there for the rest of the evening.  This seems counter-intuitive for someone who has just spent the last 900 words in ode to kitchen tables.  My ascetic habits have been hard to kick, however, especially when the act of eating at a table will always feel religiously communal to me, the meals blessed as dishes pass hands.

After long days at work, days that leave me feeling particularly shattered (and there have been too many of these recently), gathering the mindfulness to recognize the food on my plate as anything but fuel feels almost riotously absurd.  Who the hell cares, I think, if you eat these eggs and toast at the table or in bed?  You have spent all day on the phone with people who don’t care about you. Why make the effort now?

The answer with which I have to forge onward is that actually – I must care. While my identity right now is shrouded in a sense of displacement, I have found that one of the things which might very well save me – which might carry me from this stage to the next – is if I plant myself at that kitchen table and I remind myself of the value of the meal I have created.  Because in doing so, I remind myself of my own worth, of the past that has informed the work I do in the present, and the future that I find myself ceaselessly trying to shape.

Because if there is any place where I will be able to make meaning of this sacred and unrelenting new chapter, it will certainly be at the table, one dish at a time.