Anyone who had ever been to WoodPEC might have noticed this guy posted at the center of the board. His name is Daniel Shin originally from South Korea who is now working as a personal trainer at Emory. I first met him at the welcoming party for the freshmen about five years ago and he was sitting right in front of me sharing the same dinner table. Naturally, we started our first rather awkward conversation, but soon became intimate by talking about each other’s interests and concerns. Since then, I realized that the dinner table is more than just a table and it has the power to connect people with each other and help them to relax and feel comfortable.
When I read this assignment to write about the kitchen table, no one else popped up in my head, but just Daniel as we became the best friends by sharing the same dinner table. Even though he was born in Korea, he lived in China for a couple of years as well as in the United States as he attended high school there. Since he experienced these diverse cultures from Asia to America, I thought it would be very interesting to observe and investigate his kitchen table.
The anthropological method I used for the investigation was the participant-observation involving a fieldwork accompanied with the interview. According to the book “Eating Culture; An Anthropological Guide to Food” by Gillian Crowther, the hands-on activities like a fieldwork help the observer to better understand and truly share the outcome of what he or she is trying to study. Following this notion, I thought the best way to fully understand Daniel’s kitchen table was to actually use the table together for a day under his permission and then carefully record how it is being used as a cultural artifact. In order to listen to his opinion about his kitchen table directly, I interviewed him as well after the fieldwork was done.
As I walked into his house, the first place that welcomed me was the kitchen. However, I could not see anything that looked like a “table” which was my main focus of today’s visit. I asked him where the table is and he simply pointed a small space in the kitchen. To me, it looked more of like a shelf rather than a kitchen table. On this small table just behind the sink, I could see his car key and water bottle, but the thing that caught my eye was a book about nutrition. He told me that before he eats a meal on the kitchen table, he reads this book about nutrition which is the field he is interested in and keeps studying for his future. Before the meal, I could find that the kitchen table was used as a place to study.
During the meal, I looked at the dishes he prepared and could better understand the quote in our prompt that “Every meal is a message, and where we eat is as important as what we eat in getting the message across.” The dishes included rice, Kimchi, bread, beef patties, broccoli, chicken breast, salted seafood, and curry. While the eating habit that has been established when he was young and the eating culture of his own country are the most crucial factors in deciding the menu of his table, the place where he stays is another important aspect that has an impact on his kitchen table. Since he is in the United States where he cannot get Korean food as easy as he could get when he was in Korea, he buys American food like Uncle Dave’s bread or beef patties at places with easy accessibility like Kroger or Walmart. It was also interesting to find three different sauces for the beef patties. One was a spicy sauce from Korea, another was the sesame teriyaki sauce from Asia, and the last was the classic barbeque sauce that most Americans enjoy eating. Just by looking at the different sauces, I could see the different cultures of Asia and America were merged into one plate. Daniel also told me that he often eats the meal with his brother. By sharing stories about their daily life while eating together, they feel more connected to each other. They also enjoy eating food from Korea especially Korean curry and salted seafood that are sincerely prepared by their mom. By eating those dishes together, I could feel the affection and love from his parents and made me miss my family back in Korea too.
To Daniel, the kitchen table was more than just a eating table just as I realized in the dinner reception where Daniel and I became friends through the table. It is a place of studying about his field of interest, it is a place of gathering where he feels more connected with his brother by sharing their concerns, and it is a place of nostalgia that reminds him of the time he spent with his family by eating sincerely prepared food by his mother. Even though his kitchen table is relatively small and I am not even sure whether others would even regard it as a kitchen table or not, there is no doubt that the investigation of Daniel’s kitchen table through participant-observation led me to understand Malinowski’s final goal of studying food, that is, “To grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”
Eating Culture; An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther