I am Cydni Holloway, and I am a student at Emory University. I conducted this study because I wanted to learn more about my grandmother’s dining room table. Growing up, it was always sort of a mystery for me, so I thought it would be interesting to observe the table from an outsider’s point of view.
When I let my grandmother know that I would be coming over to learn more about her kitchen table, she did like any grandmother would, and asked me what I wanted to eat. I told her that crawfish étouffée sounded good and she agreed. I let my grandmother know that I was there to observe her dining table, but I also wanted to be as hands on as possible and help her cook the étouffée. I did this because the anthropological method that I decided to use was participant observation. According to Crowther, participant observation involves immersion and helps a person understand the culture of thing they are studying from an authentic point of view which contributes to a “greater body of work of social anthropology” (Crowther, 2013). I wanted to understand how my grandmother’s dining room table was used and perceived from an outsider’s point of view, and this method seemed most applicable and logical for this anthropological study. Directly participating in my cooking and eating process would allow me to get a true sense of what her dining room table actually was.
As I observed this dining room with a fresh pair of eyes, I noticed it looked spotless. The dining room was right next to kitchen. It was a spacious, yet intimate room. Behind the dining room table sat a display case that contained all of grandmother’s china. These beautiful and timeless blue and white plates looked like they had not been touched in years. In front of her perfectly displayed China, sat my grandmothers dining room table. It was sturdy and looked freshly polished. It was free of scratches and looked almost brand new. It was a medium caramel brown wooden color. The table’s legs where thick and had beautiful detailing on them that reminded me of the detailing that can be found on Roman columns. The table was an oval shape, and had six chairs spread around it.
As the fragrance of onion and crawfish began to fill the air, what once was diced onion, butter, and flour began to resemble étouffée, the dining table still remained spotless. I asked my meme why she didn’t use the table more frequently, and she let me know that it’s how she grew up. It’s been a family tradition to reserve the dining table for very special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. She said she didn’t know where this tradition came from, but she said it was common among everyone she knew.My grandmother’s explanation made me feel like I understood the kitchen table a little more. It was about traditions that were passed down, and traditions don’t always make sense or have clean explanations. My grandmother was fine with not knowing the specifics ,and so was I. She also let me know that dining room tables were meant to be preserved and kept in pristine condition in her culture. Junru mentioned that the “Chinese stress the aesthetics of food, the refinement of dining ware, and the elegance of the dining environment”(Junru 32). This statement reminded me of my grandmother’s dining table. It functioned as a massively beautiful piece of decoration that took up space, more than it functioned as a place where people eat.
Once the food was ready, my grandmother asked me to set the table. I pulled the yellow place mats from the drawer next to the oven, and grabbed a couple forks and knives. Slowly, the piece of furniture came to life. It was almost as if the golden-brown table went through a renaissance. As the savory étouffée pleased every taste bud in our mouths, we were both sure to not spill anything on the table. Every time I picked my ice-cold cup of sweet tea up to take a sip, I was careful to place the cup back down on my table mat to make sure that the condensation on the outside of the cup wouldn’t touch the wooden surface of the table. I did this out of respect. This piece of furniture seemed to be loved and respected by my grandmother, and I decided to do the same. Some people show that they love an inanimate object by using it constantly, while others try their best to preserve these objects. My grandmother preferred the latter.
After we finished eating off of paper plates that had far less value than the china plates that sat behind us, I offered to clean the table. I offered mainly because it was the polite thing to do, but also because I wanted to fully embrace being a participant observer. My grandmother insisted that she clean the table. I figured that she wanted to clean the table because she wanted it cleaned a certain way. After the place mats were put back in the drawer next to the oven and the dishes were put in the sink, the dining table transformed back into a mystery and something to be avoided and protected from damage.
As I reflected on the evening that I spent with my grandmother, I wondered why she allowed us to have dinner at the table that was reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas. After a few moments, it dawned on me. The table was not about a specific holiday, but it was about special times spent with family
in Chinese Food by Liu Junru.