My grandmother has always been one for extravagance. She likes to host large dinner parties with her friends, buy fancy clothes, and broadcast her wealth in any way that she can. Her home, according to my father, falls into the interior design styling of “frou frou”, but to the well-trained eye, it is more Victorian. Either way, her home is artful, and her dining room is no exception. Large families, like mine, tend to have a designated house that they gather at for each holiday, and my grandmother willingly accepts the offer each season. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter are all done at her home, which is a short 20-minute drive from my own. At each holiday, we always eat at her dining table as a family.
This particular table has always been an interest of mine. It is made of solid dark wood, maybe eight inches at it thinnest. The corners and legs are all decked out in ornamentation that appropriately places the table in the styling of the rest of her home. The chairs, of course, match the wood of the table, but they are also upholstered with a beautiful beige paisley and dark brown leather design that seems like too much of a work of art to be sat on in the daily. I chose this table, as it is a solid piece of furniture with history within the family.
I explained the role of this reflection to my grandmother. “So you want to interview me about my table?” to which I responded “Yes, but more importantly, I want to learn about how where we eat has an impact on our food culture.” I dived into the Noodle Narratives course and defined concepts like food anthropology and cultural relativism to boost my credibility as an interviewer. I brought with me a quote from Eating Culture – An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther, which said that, “the activities surrounding food acquisition, preparation, and consumption, lead themselves to cross-cultural comparison, allowing us to conjure into existence others’ lives through a shared everyday experience of eating.” From this quote, I explained how the culture of food is made up of much more than just the meal that we eat.
The interview process would be a simple 20 minute conversation about the specific table, its history, and how it fosters community. My goal from using this anthropological method was to gain my grandmother’s perspective on family gathering and the table’s role as a cultural artifact. I would also observe the table for myself, including how it was set up, the design, and how a typical meal would run.
I learned that the table had been in her home since she retired and moved to Texas from California 11 years ago. She purchased the table from an antique refinishing company at the request of her interior designer. The table and chairs had been re-stained to repair any fading of the wood, and the chairs needed to be reupholstered after years of wear and tear. The end product was sent to her home and has not moved since. When questioned about its use, my grandmother said that “it is saved for special occasions. When it is just me and your grandfather, we eat at the kitchen table.” She wanted to protect the wood from any avoidable stains from daily eating, and she thought it was “a little weird” to eat at a table with seating for up to ten when there was only one or two. She did, however, still use the table daily, but just for a different purpose. When I first arrived at her home, I noticed an almost complete puzzle with the remaining pieces scattered across the wood surface. I helped her complete it while we were talking, and she explained that she’d frequently “set up shop” at the dining room table because it was the biggest open space. Beyond puzzles, she would also play cards or board games with her husband there. Even without joining for a meal, the table still worked to foster a gathering of people. Had I not been interviewing her about the specific table, I was still pretty confident that our chat would occur in the same place, as the dining room was a place for conversation.
During the meals that did occur there, she explained that it would always be served family style. The large roast, usually a turkey or ham, would showcase in the center, with different accompanying dishes flanking the sides. When asked why she chose to serve the meals like this, she explained that when she was going to use the dining room table, it would be for large meals that required the space. It is too laborious to have to dish out every side dish on every plate. Plus, she said, “when you are eating with family or a group of close friends, you can lose the pretense and just allow everyone to enjoy the food as they want to.” This statement reminded me of the introduction in Eating Culture, where the author was at a “fancy restaurant” and had “cutlery anxiety”. My grandmother, similar to the author, Gillian Crowther, thought it was too proper to have everything served to you, and eating buffet style at the table incorporated more conversation about the food amongst friends. She mentioned that this conversation would often extend for close to an hour after the last fork had been laid to rest. It was not often that the whole family would be gathered together, so there would usually be a lot to catch up on. The table simply served as the foreground for that conversation.
In conclusion, I learned that this table’s main function is to be used as a gathering point for large meals that are served family style. The table is long in length, so it can seat many people who circle the main course that is placed as a centerpiece. The types of dishes that are served at this table are traditional American holiday recipes of roasted meats accompanied by several side dishes such as potatoes, salads, and breads. Regular meals are not eaten at this table due to its large size and expensive design that would be wasted on the daily breakfast of toast and coffee that is eaten by my grandparents. Instead, before meals, and when not entertaining guests, they use the table as a home for their board games and activities between a retired husband and wife. Even in these instances, the table is used as a cultural artifact to promote conversation about food and a gathering between people.