I am a social anthropologist seeking to gain insight into the cultural relevance and significance of the kitchen table in daily life. Observing the kitchen table and the family, I aim to obtain perspective on how the kitchen table is utilized prior to, during, and after a meal. I hope to acquire knowledge that contributes to the greater body of work of social anthropology and that highlights the connections between the kitchen table, food and the familial community.
For this research, I chose participant-observation as the anthropological method to study the kitchen table and its surrounding environment. Participant-observation enables the social anthropologist to capture real-time perspective of the culture one seeks to observe. Essentially, the research will reflect the social anthropologist’s understandings and the perspective gained will contribute to greater body of work of social anthropology (Crowther, 2013).
The kitchen table I have chosen to study lives between the kitchen and the living room of a family home. The table is rectangular in shape with a faux-granite surface and has four identical chairs. The table’s legs and base are wooden with the chairs sharing the same materials. The table seems rather unassuming with no additional decorations adorning the surface. The table is without a centerpiece, candles, or other ornamentation. However, atop the table are several items belonging to different members of the family.
Prior to the meal being eaten on the table, the table serves as a hub of the family and general gathering place for the family community. The table holds a collection of documents and to-do’s, representing the family’s daily lives and aspirations. School work, letters of advertisement, bills, greeting cards, and wedding announcements fill the table, forming a collage of the family’s connections to their community.
During the meal, the table is a platform for food presentation and distribution. The table that once held a collection of documentation of the family’s schedule, work and social obligations transforms to produce a spotlight to showcase the meal. At this time, most items are cleared from the table completely, stacked into piles and placed in the living room or corners of the kitchen itself. Other items appear on the kitchen table, making an appearance to accompany the meal. A salt grinder, a pepper grinder, and various sauces make their way onto the kitchen table. Other additions include cutlery and various beverages. The kitchen table has become a stage for “the meal” and its accompanying troupe. The meal and its edible components are coupled with emotion and other basic elements of the human existence. Following the meal onto the kitchen table are laughter, discussion, nourishment and satisfaction. It appears the kitchen table is the environment that has produces this shared cultural event with food at the center, evoking this shared experience.
After the meal, the table continues as a connector for the family, promoting discourse and relationship building. Accounts of the day are shared by members of the family, plans are made, and aspirations announced. However, as plates are removed from the kitchen table, the event of the meal comes to an end. Family members begin to leave the kitchen table, venturing to their desired location in the home. Items that had a brief appearance with the meal are no longer visible, and the collage of the family returns.
The kitchen table serves several roles for the family. Prior to the meal, the kitchen table serves as a reservoir for the family’s tasks, plans and social connections. During the meal, the kitchen table serves as a conductor, as metal to electric current: the kitchen table brings the meal to life, creating culture. The kitchen table also produces community for the family and an exchange for ideas and experiences. The kitchen table serves as a foundational element for food sharing and relationship building with the event of the meal at the center.
Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. University of Toronto Press, 2013.