My name is Courtney Andrews and for my investigation, I observed the kitchen table of diner chef Donna Grant. Donna Grant is a 68-year-old, mother of four, who once helped her mother operate their family run diner in Catskill, New York, called Koch’s. Although the beloved restaurant closed its doors nearly 5 years ago, she is still a chef, and a fantastic one at that. As I walked through the squeaky front door of her summer home, a double-wide in Daytona Beach, Florida, she greeted me with a huge bear hug and immediately put me to work.
“Honey, if you could, just wrap those up in some foil for me and then we can talk about your little project,” she said as she forcefully shoved her homemade stuffing in one side of the turkey. “I just have to be sure the bird is cooking first.”
I walked toward the pile of potatoes and began wrapping them in foil. It wasn’t long before she caught a glimpse of my work, and hurried over to correct my mistake. She calmly demonstrated how to “poke” the potatoes with the fork first, and then lather them in olive oil before wrapping them. She explained that if you do not oil them first, they dry out, and if you do not poke holes in the skin, then they explode, and the whole house burns down, which makes these two steps quite integral parts of the process. As I began fixing my potato mishaps, she began chopping lettuce and telling me all about our special guests. She rattled off a number of familiar names, including a number of her own children, as well as her children’s children. As I wrapped the final potato and placed it in the pile with the 15 or so others, she beamed.
“Oh, thank you so much sugar,” she said, as she pulled open the silverware drawer. “Can you just go ahead and place these on the table?” She handed me a large pile of forks, which I then walked toward the dining table. It was only then that I began to realize there was no way this table was going to seat more than six, and yet I had wrapped 15 or so potatoes and was currently holding nearly the same number of forks.
“Um, Donna… Is this the table you were referring to?” I asked, hoping to sound polite despite my confusion.
“Ah, yes,” she said with a smile. “My sons made that for me when they were in high school. Isn’t it lovely? They will be here tonight, your cousins, PG and Jimmy. Such great boys.”
As sweet as her explanation was, it did nothing to address my confusion as to where exactly all of this silverware was to go. There simply wasn’t enough space on the tiny little wooden table. I figured maybe I’d try something different:
“Donna, how many people will be dining with us this evening?” I asked.
“14” she responded, not even looking up from the pile of onions. I looked at the table again, confused as to how it would realistically even fit 5, let alone 14.
“Ah, PG and his family are arriving now,” she said with a smile. “They can help you with setting the table”.
For the next half-hour, I continued to ask Donna a number of questions concerning her children and the traditions that went into these regular meals together. She kindly answered my interview questions to the best of her ability, and always with a smile. I eagerly listened to her perspective while observing as the whole family went into the garage and seemingly without a thought, set up temporary tables and 10 or so folding chairs. That double-wide trailer was so packed full of tables and chairs, that I wasn’t even sure how we could possibly add more humans to the equation. Yet, within the next few minutes, members of the family slowly began to trickle in, and yet no one seemed crowed or uncomfortable. This was how the family gatherings went. I certainly felt a little claustrophobic, but based on the number of smiling faces in the room, I know that I was alone in this feeling of even slight discomfort.
For my study, I employed the participant-observation method in order to really get a feel for the environment and the practice. I, of course, could not decline my aunt’s invitation to join her in preparing, enjoying, and cleaning up the beautiful meal. Her gracious efforts required assistance, which doubled as hands-on experience for me. By helping out, I acquired a greater sense of the process as well as the feel, smell, and taste of the tradition. My immersive opportunity and fieldwork was accompanied by a number of interview-like discussions with Donna and her family members that took place while preparing the food and the table. Every person present had a story to share about the family dinner event. Even more so, these stories seemingly always had a cheery tone to them, from my cousin’s first dinner there with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, to the first dinner appearance my one-year-old cousin Brycen made just this past year. Nothing but positivity radiated from the tasks and interviews I partook in throughout my investigation into the importance of the mini, white, wooden dining table. I could imagine no other means besides full immersion to investigate a family experience on an emotional level. Conducting interviews, or making comparisons did not seem to be an appropriate means of truly experiencing the dinner event in all of its glory. (Crowther 2018)
I undertook this study because despite the fact that Donna is my closet aunt, I have never once been to her home for dinner. Although the family gatherings with Donna’s side of the family were quite regular, there was always some excuse that my mother made so that we did not have to deal with some choice members of the family, as well as the “chaotic” nature of the ordeal. However, as a 20-year-old researcher, I was, of course, free to attend if I wanted to do so. I watched every member of the family bring a dish– some dishes were simple, some intricate, some store bought, some from scratch. And yet ever dish was appreciated all the same.
The thing that interests me most about this particular kitchen table it that the table itself is really not all too important. The little four-top table that my aunt and her husband sit at holds great meaning to them, but the other fold up tables are, from an isolated, outside perspective, seemingly nothing special. Appearances aside, however, the fold-up tables are what turn the dining room into a welcoming gathering space. The dining room set, with its old white, chipped paint, and four unmatched chairs, isn’t pretty, neat, or organized, but the set-up isn’t the main focus; rather the home and the guests are the key components. For me this was a very important lesson: It’s not where you are, or what you have, it’s who you are with. My family has never had much in terms of fancy silverware, fine China, or detailed furniture, but we have always had each other and some warm, hearty meals. The table at the center of the gathering serves only as a starting point, from which more and more tables can be added as more hungry mouths arrive. There is no true limit to the size of the gathering, as more settings are always possible and more than welcome.
The white, worn little wooden table quite obviously had experienced a number of family dinners. Although it still wore a number of chips, dents, and scratches at the time of my investigation, it was clear that the table had been lovingly restored a number of times throughout the years. It may not be perfect, and it may not be the most beautiful table, but it holds a lot of love as well as the potential for gathering. These two things, love and potential, are what I believe to be the most integral parts of a dining room table.
Crowther, Gillian, and Gillian Crowther. “Setting The Anthropological Table.” Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, University of Toronto Press, 2018, pp. XVII-XXX.