His dining table was surely hard to miss. While most families relax and spend time in the living room together, Michelangelo’s family would gather in the dining room. Each time, I noticed the dining table being particularly used for activities other than eating. Michelangelo, a close friend of mine from Emory University, comes from a very artistic family, and last Spring when I visited his home, I noticed his talented younger sister painting the Atlanta skyline on a large white canvas. Most families associate the dining table as a place of gathering at the end of the day, after a long day at work, or a tough day at school away from family—but not Michelangelo’s. As both of Michelangelo’s parents work from home and he and his sister attend universities in Atlanta as commuter students, they all spend a great deal of time in the comforts of their own home. In this study, I would like to investigate how Michelangelo’s dining table is used as a place of gathering in a home in which the members spend most of their time at home.
I called Michelangelo and explained the nature of my investigation. I delved into the material of the course, and to my surprise, Michelangelo knew all about anthropological methods. He told me how he took a class last year at Emory University called Food, Culture, and Society, where they discussed similar topics. Without hesitation, Michelangelo invited me over for dinner with his family to allow me to observe their habits and engage with them. In this study, I will be utilizing anthropological methods such as observational methods and participant observation. As an observational method, I conducted a one-on-one interview with Michelangelo in order to learn more about his dining table, and what it means to his family. In order to undergo participant observation, I observed the members in the family and ate the food that was provided, in an effort to, “gain an insider’s or emic perspective on a culture”, while also applying an outsiders perspective to, “draw wider conclusions about how the culture and society works” (Crowther, 2013). I chose these two particular anthropological methods because interviewing Michelangelo face-to-face was only possible given that we both live in the same city. In the future, I hope to study the same topic but from a non-participant observational standpoint. This particular method was not possible, as it would have been rude to solely observe the family eating without actually joining them in the practice myself.
As Michelangelo is aware that I do not have a car, he offered to pick me up from my apartment at around 5pm. When we arrived at his home 40 minutes later, he walked in, took off his shoes, and headed straight towards the dining table, where he kissed his mom hello. The table was set unlike I have ever seen it before. Gold brimmed floral plates sat atop burlap placemats. The beautiful, mahogany, long, rectangular table seats twelve. The table had an airy silhouette, a mixture of Tuscan and mid-century Scandinavian design. In order to be polite, I waited until after dinner to write down all my observational notes. Michelangelo’s father and sister meticulously walked to a specific seat. I noticed that the seat Michelangelo’s sister sat in was the same seat I previously had seen her sit in while she was painting. His mother sat down several cork coasters. The way everything on the table was aesthetically matching was not surprising to me as his mother is an interior designer. Being as they are part Italian, his mother prepared her classic carbonara—a dish that I heard Michelangelo rave about for years! Surprisingly, she also brought out a tray full of garlic bread. I found this particularly interesting especially since we just learned about common Italian-American stereotypes in class last week—garlic bread being one of the biggest ones. Even though his family had spent the majority of their lives living in America, the carbonara was made the classic Italian way. I have noticed that even in many “authentic” Italian restaurants in America, carbonara is almost always unauthentically prepared with a heavy, milky sauce, and I have even once seen it prepared with a sunny-side egg on top. However, in his mother’s dish, the bacon was cooked to perfection, and the pasta had a thin, silky sauce with an egg incorporated in it. The mannerisms at the table were very free-flowing, there was a lot of laughter, and everyone was chatting with one another. There were never side conversations, every member of the family was engaged in what was being said at the moment.
When dinner came to an end, I helped clear the table, and wash the dishes, something Crowther would describe as an ideal participant observational practice. I pulled Michelangelo aside to conduct the one-on-one interview. He asked if we should conduct it at the dining room table, and I politely asked if there was another place we could do it given that the dining room table seems to be his family’s hangout spot. He led me into his bedroom, and we conducted the interview there. I asked a variety of questions to gain further insight regarding how the dining table is utilized amongst the members of his family. Michelangelo told me that his father is a consultant, and would spend most of his days taking phone calls and typing on the computer on the dining table in the same spot that he ate dinner at. Usually he stops working around 5pm, which is when he removes all of his stuff on the table and helps set the table for dinner. He also mentioned that his mother utilizes the table the most, usually covering three-fourths of the table with her blueprints throughout the day. As far as his sister goes, she chooses to paint at the table as she enjoys being around her parents. Michelangelo utilizes the table only after dinner for school work. He mentioned that during lunch, they all usually eat while they are working on the dining table, a concept that is particularly foreign to me. Unexpectedly, for breakfast, they all take their coffee, eggs, and toast in the living room on the couches, while watching the morning news. This is a routine that has been followed ever since Michelangelo’s’ father started working from home, which was when he was around twelve years old.
Through this study I learned that for Michelangelo and his family, the dining table represents a place of constant gathering, not just a place for gathering at the end of the day like most families associate it with. His dining table represents traditions that are now engraved in their family values. It is not only a place of having meals with family, but has become a place of work, hobbies, and overall enjoyment for all members of the family. Conducting this study has furthered my interest in how the significance of cultural artifacts can change overtime.
Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. University of Toronto Press, 2013.