Twenty years ago we bought a kitchen table. We bought it in Kuala Lumpur, as our family expanded to five, and it is made from the local rubberwood. Rubberwood is, according to Wikipedia, high quality, hardwood timber with a tight grain and a soft, honey colour. Despite its name, rubberwood does not bounce, but it is durable, strong, and smooth, and unlikely to warp or crack. It is also ecologically sustainable, as the timber is only recycled after a long career producing latex, when it will be felled for furniture and a new tree replanted in its place. It is not fancy, but it has a warmth of character that always makes me want to stroke it as I walk past.
Our kitchen table has travelled all over the world with us. It has been repainted, revarnished, battered and bruised, even chewed by one small teething puppy, and the scars are there for all to see. It has lived in dining rooms and kitchens, studies and bedrooms; the most versatile piece of furniture we have ever owned. Sadly, we have broken or mislaid all the original chairs, but while other tables have come and gone – larger, longer, rounder – this original family table is still with us, and it seems we cannot let it go. We are emotionally attached to it. It symbolizes family. It symbolizes home.
For some, home is the town where they were born, a house they have lived in all their lives, somewhere they feel they belong. As gypsies, we cannot rely on bricks and mortar to define a home, so home is wherever two or more are gathered together around the table, be it in Prague or Peru, Kuala Lumpur or Kathmandu, Townsville or Timbuktu. It may be a moveable feast, but it is on a steady, reliable table with tough roots.
Sharing a table, sharing food, is a human instinct. My one constant role as an adult has been providing meals for our family and friends. I like to cook, but I love to gather people around our table to eat. It is a trait I inherited from my mother, who, even with four children to feed, was incorrigibly hospitable and always happy to squeeze in a few extras for dinner.
Sociologists worry that the concept of the family meal is dying out thanks to a number of modern alterations to the social fabric of our lives: the pace of life; working mums; TV dinners; divorce, or the dispersion of the extended family that has create familial Diasporas across continents and time zones. Fifteen years ago, one food writer whined that “the family meal is dying on its sofas. All those end-of-day catch-ups; all that witty banter, gone… Between them, television and convenience foods seem to have brought the family to its knees.”
In recent years, computers and mobile phones have replaced the TV as the devil incarnate, but the inference is that younger generations have been set adrift, no longer anchored to traditional family values, but shaped by social media, microwave meals and fast food. Conservatives, nostalgic for a past era – or a Victorian ideal – of Sunday roasts and family feasts bemoan the dwindling cooking skills and kitchen-less homes that are eating away at the heart of our society. Remember Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and those grim family encounters around the TV with separate tables, microwave meals, dim lighting and no conversation? Apparently that joyless little scenario is today’s stereotype. While there is little evidence to support these speculations, writers continue to raise the spectre of a hemorrhaging family unit; to idolize the family mealtime as a cornerstone of family viability.
I agree, times have changed. What we eat, where we eat it, when we eat and with whom we eat it may have altered over the last half century, but the reasons we like to eat together have never actually disappeared. To paraphrase food historian Bob Ashley, good food and good conversation still matter. Solitary grazing is depressing. People enjoy eating together. It is a basic human instinct, a cultural tradition, and a symbol of friendship and family life. “Two, four, six, eight, dig in don’t wait. And first one finished helps his neighbor!”
At the core of human relationships is the concept of connecting people to each other and to their culture and community. And the kitchen table can still provide that medium for social interaction, social renewal and spiritual growth; that place to teach our children social values such as sharing, respect, etiquette and familial responsibility; that lectern from whence to promote stability, security and solidarity, cementing the family unit and teaching our kids how to look after themselves.
Living in the Philippines has made me acutely aware of these concepts. Wherever two or more are gathered together, there is food and community. If it is not time for a specific meal, there is merienda, the Filipino version of afternoon tea or morning coffee that simply fills a gap between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. The Spaniards introduced the term to the Philippines four hundred years ago, and it was the perfect gift to a nation who loves to graze.
At lunchtime in the city, group gatherings at local cafés and restaurants are the norm, be it a flock of friends, a whoop of work mates or a gaggle of giggling students. Many of my Filipino friends are still be expected to spend Sundays with parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts. And while many of us will recognize the modern mall dining scenario where an extended family lunch means everyone, from lolo (grandfather) to toddler to yaya (nursery maid), seems to be glued to a screen, the point is, they have made the time to be together. Eating alone is a totally foreign concept in the Philippines, where it seems every meal looks like this Renoir painting.
For me, too, family meals are important. My One & Only grew up in a Mediterranean culture very similar to the Philippines, full of food and family, and we have always tried to maintain the tradition of eating dinner together at the end of the day. One of my favourite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which perfectly illustrates those cultures who seem to be forever focused on the next meal, and Toula describes how “Greeks marry Greeks to breed more Greeks, to be loud breeding Greek eaters.” And let’s face it, eating is so much more entertaining with the clan, at a table laden with all those lovely concepts like conviviality, community, conversation and sharing, not to mention lashings of good food. It is the best of all possible worlds.
Since the kids left home, we have stored our Camelotian round table in the spare room and we are back at the old kitchen table. It’s a bit scuffed, and the chairs don’t match, but we can squeeze six adults around it if you don’t mind knocking elbows occasionally, and it can be used for writing or painting or ironing when it is not required for eating: a Jack of all trades, and the bones of family life. Hardwearing and homely, I hope it sustains its reputation as the focal point of family meals for many years to come.
* With thanks to Google Images for the pictures.