I was born and raised in Manhattan, New York City. I like to introduce that because despite this, I was raised under great influence of West African traditions. I am well aware and knowledgeable of my native tongue and traditions such as food and holidays. I am conducting a study to investigate the use of the kitchen table. I am viewing the kitchen table as a cultural artifact because from that point, I can take note of everything one does using the kitchen table. Every use of the kitchen table has a reason behind it that may be symbolic or of greater significance. This is especially important to me because I didn’t notice certain things about the kitchen table in my own home or why certain things were the way they are simply because I have become so accustomed to seeing it that way. I interviewed my mom because she cooks native food every day and she has a specific way about making the meal and placing it on the table. My mom is from the Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa, and therefore my mom’s kitchen table traditions are those passed on from her mother, who learned it from her mother and so on. My mom and the rest of my family are all Muslim, as well, so a mixture of culture and religion all plays into the way she uses her kitchen table. Studying and learning about why my mom uses the kitchen table the way she does before studying someone else’s kitchen table is important to me because it teaches me about my culture and tradition and the reason my mom values her practices in the kitchen so much that she does it the same exact way her mom did it.
The anthropological methods that I chose were both participant observation and interview. I let my mom know that I would be watching and taking note of how she uses her kitchen table and explained the study to her. She was eager to be a part of my assignment, so she decided to exaggerate everything she normally does to ensure I don’t miss anything. Participant observation is really important in a study like this because I have to study the actions of my mom meticulously and record them. I also decided to interview her, only for about two questions, as she was preparing dinner when I wanted to know why she did certain things such as what to set on the table and how to start each meal. It was 5pm on Saturday when I conducted this study. I started off by observing the table and realizing that my mom always places a box of dates in the center of the table before starting food preparation. Dates are sweet fruits that come from date palm trees. I always knew there were sometimes dates on the table but I never realized that my mom places it before she starts cooking and removes it before she puts food on the table.
Q: Why do you place dates on the table before cooking? Why dates?
A: Dates are really important in the Islam world. They are extremely beneficial to one’s health and Prophet Muhammed (SAW) said that they came from Paradise. He said a home without dates is a house in hunger. It’s important for Muslims to follow what Muhammed (SAW) did in order to live the right way.
This was really interesting to me because it never occured to me that the reason my mom put dates on the table was a religious reason. I became very curious about dates and did some of my own research on it at the moment and found numerous health benefits and i’m glad to share this with people who don’t know this.
My mom then started her cooking. Today she was making okra stew over rice. She cut up the meat and the spices and threw everything in the big pot she set over the hot stove. I noticed that before my mom cut anything or even when she opened the pot up to stir the food, she would always say “Bismillah.” The word “Bisimillah” is Arabic for “In the name of God.” I say this before starting an exam or before I start eating, so I was very comfortable with hearing my mom say it before she started cooking. Saying “Bisimillah” is blessing whatever you’re bound to start. My mom is blessing our food and making it the right way, Islamically, just by saying “Bisimillah” before making anything. After making the food my mom puts it in very large plates because that’s respect in West African culture. Putting food in very large bowls or plates, even if it can fit in smaller ones, shows that you have compassion and are willing to share with the community. This I know because I grew up eating in very large plates all the time even when eating by myself. After making the food, my mom put the food on the table. She removed the dates first then placed the food one by one using her right hand only. She liked to transfer very hot things into things that require you to only use one handle just so she can transfer it and sit it on the dinner table with her right hand.
Q: Why is it so important for you to use your right hand to take things?
A: The right hand is respected. In West African Culture doing anything with your left hand when it comes to taking is very disrespectful and may cause you to be shunned by elders. It’s important for me to show you guys how to take things because in Africa if you take something from someone with your left hand, they would slap your hand.
I knew to always use my right hand but I never asked since I was just that kid that did what she was told. It’s really interesting to know the reason my mom does certain things because she grew up doing it and got so used to it. These cultural norms from West Africa are so embedded into my mom’s character that she naturally does it and made sure we grew up doing so as well. The kitchen is a very respected place, so doing things with blessings from God and respect makes complete sense to me. The kitchen table is very large in our home because we have to set very large plates down. A larger plate is set in the center where everyone would eat with their hands. We would transfer food from the smaller plates to put it in the extremely large plate for everyone to dig in. Eating with our hands is very traditional and something very normal to me. It’s so normal to me that using eating utensils when i’m not home can get annoying to me. After eating, my siblings and I clean up the table and take everything away. In less than 15 minutes the dining table is empty again and a box of dates are placed there for desert.
My mother’s kitchen table is based off of her religion and cultural norms growing up in West Africa. In everything that she does I can either tie it back to Islam or the Ivory Coast.