The Two Kitchen Tables
I happened to be living in my grandmother’s house the week this journal was assigned so the timing was perfect to be conducting the study at her place. Because of my summer internship camp, I had to reside away from home for a week, and the closest place I could stay was my grandma’s. At first, I wasn’t confident if I could discover anything new or intriguing about the kitchen table at this place, because I thought it would be the same as eating in my own home. However, the first meal I had with grandma definitely caught my attention, when the only two people in the house, my grandmother and I, started eating in two distinct locations.
My grandmother’s house is pretty big, big enough for a four-person family, but Nana is the only resident. Her former housemate, our beloved grandfather, passed away over 14 years ago. Back then, Nana refused to move out, so she’s been filling up that huge space all by herself. In the kitchen, the huge dining table that was my grandparents’ wedding present stands with confident reverence. That was where I thought we’d both be eating our meals.
“Nana, why are you eating there?” I asked when I sat down naturally at the big dining table in the huge kitchen, where Nana had set up my plate for me, but wasn’t joined by my grandmother. Instead, she placed her meal on the elongated kitchen counter near the back veranda of the house. It was barely big enough for her two plates. I was confused why she was eating there. She had all this space, but she continued to say “It’s okay, love, eat at that table. I like watching you eat from here.” when I asked her to eat with me at the table.
As the research began that week, I slowly began to recognize the existence and significance of the two dining tables. Throughout the 7 days, the anthropological method that I decided to use in my grandmother’s home was participant observation. This method allows people to be involved in a foreign culture through intense involvement over a certain period of time. I chose this method because it was easily done as I was able to immerse myself directly in not only my grandmother’s food but also the culture at the table by residing at my grandma’s place and having to eat dinner together every night. Also, by being at the dining table, I was able to carefully observe my grandmother at the kitchen counter with a third person’s perspective. I decided against an interview because I thought the participant observation gave a more objective view of the meaning behind both the kitchen counter and the dining table; a structured 1:1 interview could have provided my grandmother space to fib about the truth.
The kitchen counter, a.k.a., my grandmother’s dining table, was a metaphor of many. First, the counter served as the control center. The view from the counter to the main dining table was conspicuous. Her eyes, barely focusing on her own meal, darted in my direction every couple bites. If she felt that I was almost finished a side dish or a bowl of rice, she would quickly recharge my meal with the right components.
Something to realize about Korean meals is that it’s just never one dish. A meal normally consists of many small side dishes called “ban-chan” which are prepared extensively even for the smallest portions. These could consist of kimchi, black soy beans, salted spinach, sweetened anchovies, and more. They come with the main carb, a bowl of rice, as well as some other main stew or protein, usually soy bean paste stew or oven-cooked mackerel.
The kitchen counter also represented motherly sacrifice. As I said before, whenever I was eating at the big table, my grandmother was barely able to concentrate on her own dishes. Eager for my well being, she would be so quick on her feet to fill my plates that she barely had time to empty her own. Even for the sake of the research, I couldn’t bear to watch that, so I would always tell her “I’m fine, Nana, eat your own food.” But she would jokingly refuse and just ask if I needed more rice. The small kitchen counter also couldn’t fit the variety of banchan dishes I always had the privilege of having every dinner. The surface was perfect for just a bowl of rice, a cup of water, and a small plate for kimchi. She would again refuse any of my attempts at giving her my ban chan, saying that she could cook them anytime later.
The second table is the actual dining table that stretched across the whole dining room. The table, a wedding present for my grandparents, was the most prized possession of my grandmother and the last bit of my grandfather’s trace she wanted to leave in her house. The intense black paint over the wood had faded over the course of 50 years but not scratched in the tiniest bit. It was very well taken care of, as if someone had polished it down almost every week. During my stay at my grandmother’s house, the dining table was never to be touched before or after any meal. It was left void of any mess, and only when my meal was prepared and set at the table was it finally used. After my dinner, my grandmother would just whisk away my plate and tell me to go sit in the living room. I observed that she would quickly reset the table back to its original state, wiping off any trace of food that I must have slipped. The table was then left alone until the next day. Its sole purpose was to feed me. Not even the owner herself, but just me. The table, filled with unique and invaluable memories with my grandfather, was to be carefully maintained and not be worn out by multiple uses. Yet, she was willing to spend those remaining uses for her granddaughter.I I became quite emotional after thinking this through, because I realized that my grandmother was willing to utilize her most valuable item for me, even when she herself was too careful to.
Although both used as a tool for consuming food, the functions and the practices associated with these two tables were distinct. Each table has its own main character and serves different purposes. For my grandmother, the counter is not really a place for her to eat; it’s a place where she can nonstop sprout her love for me with her haste dining and constant questions. For me, the dining table was a place where I ate. It was a place where I could fill my hunger with the love of my grandmother’s food and the preciousness of the table’s value.
This is not a cliche story about how the kitchen table was used as a gathering point, a communal space, or a communication hub for the family. My experience at my grandma’s was very different. It truly showed me what love and sacrifice on the kitchen table were in the most genuine and raw form, at times which could have been heartbreaking to finally observe. I could say, however, without a doubt that my grandmother filled my dinners with unconditional love, something I’ve always felt in any other family kitchen table that I’ve immersed myself in.
Class Material Reference
- Eating Culture – An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther