Blog Post #2: The Kitchen Table (Taco Night Edition)

For this assignment, I chose to interview a close friend, Laura.  Laura is of Mexican descent, each of her maternal grandparents having been born and raised in Mexico. Her background is reflected through her weekly family dinners—specifically, “Taco Night”—a popular specialty that her family has made into a bimonthly tradition. Laura does not often speak about her Mexican identity, so upon receiving this assignment, I figured that it would be the perfect way for me to capture the essence of her ethnicity and how traditions are upheld in her household.  I thought that it would be especially interesting to gather insight into what a family dinner, other than my own, might be like, and the value taken on by the dining room in a different culture.

Unlike my dining room table which is mainly utilized by my family members, Laura and her family often have guests over for dinner—especially on “Taco Night.”  It is part of their tradition.  Laura tells me, that every family member has an assigned chair during  these dinners, the guest sitting in the most comfortable chair, and that they have been doing this for years.  Each Taco Night, Laura and her immediate family members gather around the island in her kitchen to assist her mother in preparing each element for the tacos.  Of utmost importance, however, is the pulled chicken—her mother’s specialty, which was passed down from her grandmother.  Laura insists that there is no food more delectable than her mother’s pulled chicken and guests have always concurred. 

On Taco Night, Laura’s mother is picky and demanding about what goes with what and where.  For example, three key ingredients that are designated for the tacos include black beans with spices, a Mexican cheese blend, and the famous pulled chicken.  Laura’s mother stresses that each of these ingredients be served in its own “designated” bowl.  After the ingredients are prepared and placed in the bowls, Laura’s mother aligns them on the kitchen island, while Laura and her brother set the dining room table with the tablecloth, water pitcher, cutlery, placemats, and plates, at each chair.  In addition, Laura’s mother puts out her famous sangria for the adults.  While everyone is helping prepare for the meal, Spanish music plays in the kitchen; however, when dinnertime comes around, all distractions must be eliminated—that is, phones, television, and music.  This has always been an integral rule enforced in Laura’s family, as meal time is all about conversation, engagement and eye contact.  Conversations at Laura’s dining room table are typical, her family members sharing the details of his or her day, but when guests visit, Laura’s family often does “ice breakers,” questions ranging from “If you were an ice cream flavor, which one would you be and why?” to “Where do you see yourself twenty years from now?”  Questions such as these, by giving rise to humor, warm up the room, and those around the table become quickly comfortable with one another, even when the guests are not well-known to all family members. “You would be surprised if you saw how into it everyone at the table gets,” Laura tells me.  “If your response is too short and you don’t go into depth, you will be shunned!”

Three major anthropological methods that I employed to study this kitchen table were participant observation (with the participant being Laura), cultural relativism (in relation to the Mexican culture), and comparison (comparing my kitchen table to Laura’s).  I learned about these three methods in the assigned reading from Week I, that is, Gillian Crowther’s Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food.  In this introductory guide, Crowther discusses how the various anthropological methods that are used in assessing the historical backgrounds and symbolism behind staple foods of many cultures.  For example: “Comparisons can be made between different members of society, such as by age and gender, and between different cultural or ethnic groups, between different places, and between different times” (Crowther, XXII).  On the other hand, when it comes to cultural relativism: “The examination of food requires cultural relativism be maintained and the range of foodstuffs, methods of acquisition, preparation, and distribution be understood within the broader assignment of cultural meanings and values” (Crowther, XXII).  In other words, it was of utmost importance that I observed and examined Laura’s responses to my questions from an unbiased standpoint, before I carried out the comparison method.

Utilizing these three methods in my study, I gained much appreciation for how the kitchen table is valued across different cultures by families, and so did Laura; in fact, this study  helped Laura learn how special her family’s dinners are, and how their traditional methods are unique.  Moreover, studying Laura’s kitchen and dining room table highlighted the various similarities and differences that hold true between our families when it comes to eating. Every family has their own ‘thing,’ when it comes to eating meals together, and while some families are more family-oriented during meal time, Laura’s family always makes sure to really “pull in” a guest on Taco Night—something that my family has never done before.  My biggest takeaway from this study is the realization that meal time is not necessarily family time for everybody, though it is about conversation. It is social, whether it involves family, friends, or coworkers.  I am invited for next week, for Taco Night with Laura’s family. I will get to observe this firsthand—wish me luck, as I have already begun my preparation for possible icebreaker questions!

One Reply to “Blog Post #2: The Kitchen Table (Taco Night Edition)”

  1. Gabrielle, you’ve demonstrated again your capability to engage your audience. I enjoyed reading your post very much. One main weakness of your essay is the lack of focus on the kitchen table, which the journal prompt demands. I’m referring to statements in the prompt such as “How is the kitchen table used before, after, and during meals,” “What interests you about the table that you have chosen to write about,” “What are your conclusions about the function, and practices associated with the kitchen table.” I believe you took these prompt questions metaphorically whereas they should be taken more literally. Other than that, solid reflections on your experience.

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