A Dining Floor for Strangers by Alisha Mody

My name is Alisha Mody, and as a social anthropologist interested in capturing “the spirit—the natives’ views and opinions and utterances”, I will be investigating an important cultural artifact: where we eat (Malinowski 1966, 25). Like Bronisław Malinowski, a world renowned anthropologist and ethnographer, I too share the common goal of using scientific fieldwork in order to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” in the hopes that “we shall have some light shed on our own” (Malinowski 1966, 25). The subject of this study is a well-versed, intelligent, and strong woman native to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania whom I like to call Mama Asha. While she is not my birth mother, she quickly became a mother-like figure to me in the short three-weeks that she hosted me, along with several other foreigners, in her home in Dar es Salaam in the Summer of 2016. I was given the privilege of living with her and immersing myself into her culture while I was volunteering at Mwananyamala Government Hospital. As I was out of the house most of the day working ten-hour shifts, the only time I was able to spend with Mama Asha was on her living room floor where I ate breakfast with her early in the morning and dinner late at night. Despite the short interactions we would have daily, we nonetheless formed a powerful bond over these meals we would eat on the floor and led me to begin calling her “Mama”. For this reason, I have decided to conduct a study on Mama Asha’s “dining floor” and how it is able to foster such a loving and welcoming environment for the various strangers that she hosts in her home daily. 

As I currently study in Atlanta, Georgia, I am unable to visit Mama Asha in Dar es Salaam to conduct this study through participatory fieldwork. Instead, I will be employing the observational method, which is deemed the least invasive method. I chose this method to minimally integrate myself into the culture I am studying in order to gather observations and data through verbal communication, while also remaining non-intrusive of her daily habits. This will be done by conducting an interview with Mama Asha via phone.

I scheduled an interview with Mama Asha via phone at 9:00 a.m. EST, which was 4:00 p.m. in Dar es Saalam, on Saturday, July 13, 2019. After catching up with her, I explained my study, its relation to the field of social anthropology, and asked if she would allow me to interview her about her “dining floor” and habits. She thanked me for remembering her and said she was thrilled to participate and be the subject of my study. I asked Mama Asha a series of questions while I took extensive and detailed notes on her answers and comments. I began by asking her why she chooses to sit on the floor to eat. She explained that she very well could get a bigger dining table to accommodate all the members in her household, but she specifically chooses to sit on the floor for the people she hosts. She believes that the floor is a more welcoming and relaxed place of eating, which allows people to bond faster than a formal dining table would. Mama Asha expressed, “I consider whoever is eating with me on the floor that day, my family. Many may not enjoy it at first and it is a culture shock for most, but by the end of it they are usually calling me Mama Asha and they start to trust me.” She said she only ever uses her small kitchen table for eating during lunch if she is alone as it is too small to fit her, her husband, and her host kids all at once. However, she made it a point to mention that she would never let anyone older than her sit on the floor out of respect. When her husband’s parents come and visit, they all eat at the table.  

She is currently hosting a couple from Scotland and a young man from Canada whom are all in Dar es Salaam for volunteer work. Every morning she prepares a light traditional breakfast for her husband and those she is hosting consisting of breads, chapati (a flatbread tortilla), samosas (a triangular fried snack originating from India stuffed with various fillings), pilau (rice mixed with a variety of spices), hard boiled eggs, and a large steaming pot of chai. She utilizes her kitchen table, which is a small four-seater square wooden breakfast table, in order to roll the chapati dough, stuff her samosas, and prepare other breakfast items. She uses this table to cook and prep breakfast as she does not want to make a mess on the kitchen counter because her host kids use the counter after breakfast to make their sack lunches to-go before they leave for work. For this reason, they all have breakfast and dinner on the floor in the living room family-style. She discussed her daily rituals with me in vivid detail. At about 7 a.m. they all gather on the living room floor for breakfast. She was telling me about the young man from Canada who is “a particular delight to have around at breakfast” as he has a curious mind that is constantly asking about how she prepared certain traditional food items, and Tanzanian culture in general. All meal times on Mama Asha’s “dining floor” seem to be associated with deep discussions and rich cultural exchange of ideas as people from various parts of the world eat with her on her dining floor. 

During the day, Mama Asha runs a day-care from her home for children from ages of 4-10 years-old. When they are not running around the yard hula-hooping or playing with the ball, they are sitting on the floor pillows in a circle on her “dining floor” ready and eager for snack time to begin. Mama Asha said, “Its a social hour for them. They all finish their snacks in the first 5 minutes, but they sit for over an hour, talking, laughing, some even fighting, but they still create strong friendships. And the younger ones seem to mature faster as they learn from the older kids.” At night for dinner, her husband and host kids once again sit in a circle on her “dining floor” and they all talk about their day and share their experiences with one another.

While it was difficult and took a while for Mama Asha to verbalize the effect that eating on the floor has on the relationships she forms there, she and I came to a realization during the interview: there is a sense of vulnerability that comes with sitting on a stranger’s floor and eating with them, which creates an immediate connection and a sense of trust. I believe it is also possible to extend this study to include the anthropological concept of “foodscapes”, which addresses the “flow of ingredients and cuisines across the globe, and their local presence” (Crowther 2013, 25). As Crowther explains, across the various culinary sites around the world people are exposed to new foods and eating practices that they are able to engage with and associate with meaning. As Mama Asha hosts and feeds these various strangers of different race, culture, traditions, and backgrounds, she is slowly “homogenizing the world’s food culture” through globalization as these ideas and practices travel away with the strangers into their own cultures (Crowther 2013, 25). The main thing I learned through this study was that the act of strangers coming together and eating on Mama Asha’s “dining floor” changes each person’s perspective of the world, forces them to become more accepting of others, and reduces perceptions of inequality. People who sit on Mama Asha’s floor start to view those of different socioeconomic background, race, and culture as more equal than they might have in different social scenarios. 

Works cited:
Crowther, Gillian, and Gillian Crowther. “Setting The Anthropological Table.” Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, University of Toronto Press, 2018.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Malinowski: Collected Works. Routledge, 2002.

(Unrelated to this study— below is a photo of Mama Asha and I from my stay with her, a picture of her day-care kids playing, and a picture with my “host siblings”!)

Journal #2 Courtney Andrews- Donna’s Dining Room Set

           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.

 

Works cited:

Crowther, Gillian, and Gillian Crowther. “Setting The Anthropological Table.” Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food, University of Toronto Press, 2018, pp. XVII-XXX.

Cydni Holloway blog #2-The pristine dining table

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

Sources:

“Introduction” in Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther.  Preview the document

“Food and Drink Traditions” Preview the documentin Chinese Food by Liu Junru.

Brianka Rainford – Chāntli : Home in a Dining Table

My name is Brianka Rainford and with my family being from Panama, I find the comparison of Hispanic cultures to be particularly fascinating. There are so many similarities and differences when it comes to food, culture, and values. I have traveled to a few Hispanic countries and territories including Peru, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico and being able to experience the differences in cultures has led me to become aware of what makes my own culture unique.

The anthropological study that I am conducting is an in-person interview with my friend Evelyn Nicole Valencia Enriquez whose mother is from Mexico City, Mexico and father is from Usulutan, El Salvador. This study also contains a bit of participant- observation, and comparison. Having been to Mexico for a friend’s quinceañera, I was interested in finding out how the culinary traditions from the restaurants that we often ate at compared to the more home-style food.  She has often explained to me how her family has learned to incorporate traditions from both countries into their daily life, including cuisine. The cultures are so intertwined in her house, that her mother often makes many Salvadorian dishes for the family.  Evelyn recently traveled to Mexico and I asked her to describe a meal in which she felt connected to her family and her Mexican heritage. Evelyn first started to explain the environment of this meal. “My grandmother lives in an apartment complex in Mexico City, Mexico. Out of ten children, five of them live in the same apartment complex with all of their own children and grandchildren.  My grandma lives close to the entrance with most of her family surrounding her.” The meal that she describes is familial. There are generations upon generations of family members coming together to eat and connect every Sunday after Mass.

She states “my grandmother makes a bunch of food, usually meat of some sort, and everyone else will bring a side when we all eat together. If we were making tacos, for instance, my grandmother would make the taco meat, and someone else would bring the salsa, someone else the tortillas, someone else the rice, and so on until we had a whole meal fit for the family.”

While the food is being prepared, Evelyn explains that there is an “open courtyard in the middle of the apartment complex that is used as a place for children to play and adults to gather and gossip. On the other side of the apartment complex, there is a large rectangular table with a ‘mantel’ (tablecloth) on it at all times. When the table is not in use, the family often sit on it and converse with other family members or friends.” The use of the table as a space to congregate even without food on it shows how influential the table is to communication and familial bonding.

One thing that I found to be familiar in my own culture and many others around me is the incorporation of religion into every meal. Evelyn reminds me of this when she said: “before eating, the entire family first prays over the food with my grandmother reciting the prayer.” In my own household, it is also the oldest family member that often recites the prayer or someone near the top of the family hierarchy such as an uncle. She then goes to explain how the table is set up.  “When it is time to eat, the teenagers and young adults will help set up the table with food and silverware while the adults continue to talk and the children continue to play. Plates and silverware surround the food on the table and everyone sits to eat. Parents serve the children and everyone scrambles for a seat close to the middle to be closer to all of the food. Usually, everyone serves themselves, but because we were visiting from America and we hardly see Mimi (her grandmother) she served my sister and me.” As my family often eats buffet style when we are in large numbers, I asked Evelyn to explain how the food is served and where it was eaten, thinking that her family’s style was similar to mine. She explained that when everyone is sitting down around the table, plates are passed from one side to the other so that food from the other side of the table can be placed onto the plates. Food is used as an opportunity to communicate and in Mexico, it is no different, “while eating, everyone speaks to one another about their day, experiences and just regular chisme (gossip).”

“When we finish the meal, Mimi offers coffee to the family because someone has brought Conchas (sweet bread). The children often do not eat the conchas and instead they continue playing, while everyone else grabs a concha and coffee and then separate into their respective age groups to continue to converse and gossip. Then much like set up, the teenagers and young adults clean up the entire table” Evelyn said. “The idea of the younger generation helping with the setup and clean up comes from much enforced cultural value of respect for elders.” As important as this mindset is in my own culture, the young adults often do not help with set up or clean up. It is usually left to the adults to cook, set the table, and clean up afterward. When I asked Evelyn why the children do not help, she stated: “children are useless because everything is ceramic, their purpose is to look cute.”

As hilarious as her last statement was, from that one conversation, I learned so much about the way that her dining table is used in Mexico. That one table must have a history of so many traditional meals and will hopefully experience many more. It has seen the welcoming of new family members and the passing of others but yet the meals remain a constant facet of the Enriquez-Romero family.

 

Eating with Ashley

Olivia Diaz Gilbert

My name is Olivia Diaz Gilbert and I am a rising Junior at Emory University.  In this study, I interviewed and observed my roommate and fellow Emory student, Ashley Varnadoe.  I chose to study Ashley because her culture surrounding food and dining contrasts greatly from mine and I was curious to find out more about it.  Ashley and I have been sharing a kitchen and dining area for the past month, and almost immediately I noticed the differences in how we use these spaces. Where she eats, and what she does while she eats are very different from my own practices.  Ashley is also a vegetarian, which somewhat influences the use of the kitchen and kitchen table.  I was particularly interested in comparing Ashley’s experiences with her kitchen and table as a child to what I observe sharing a dining and kitchen space with her now.

To conduct this study with Ashley, I used two anthropological methods.  To study her current practices in the kitchen, I used the method of participant observation (Crowther XXI).  Our relationship made using this method very easy and natural.  I am usually present while she is making and eating food, so nothing was different when I was observing her in an anthropological context except my own thoughts. She did not feel uncomfortable, or from what I could tell change her behavior while I was observing her, because it was almost the same as what we do every night.  I also used the informal interview method to study Ashley’s experience with the kitchen and table while she was growing up (Crowther XXI-XXII).  I chose this method first because it is impossible for me to observe her past, and because I trust her to be honest and unbiased in her account, especially in an informal setting.

In the participant observation part of my study, I observed Ashley making dinner on a typical night in.  She began cooking without much thought or fuss; she put yellow rice in a saucepan with water to cook, chopped up summer squash and started it sautéing on the stove, and set up her laptop in the kitchen so she could watch Suits while she cooked.  Throughout her time in the kitchen, she was careful to avoid any of the surfaces or utensils that had been used on meat by our other roommate and had not been washed yet.  After the first two parts of her meal had some time to cook, she started heating up some tex-mex style jack fruit meat substitute in a frying pan.  When she was finished cooking, she put her food on a small plate and brought it and her laptop over to the couch in the living room without even glancing at the kitchen table.  She ate her entire meal on the couch while continuing to watch suits.  After her meal she stayed on the couch for several minutes until she reached a good stopping place in her TV show and returned to the kitchen to wash the dishes and put away the left-over food.  Later that evening she did use the kitchen table, but not to eat.  Instead, she sat at the table and did homework for a couple of hours.

When I interviewed Ashley, I asked questions based on the knowledge I had collected while observing her.  I learned that as a child, she always either ate outside on the outdoor furniture when the weather was nice, or on her couch while she and her family watched TV together.  There was little to no preparing of either space before eating.  After the meal, whichever member of her family had not cooked had to clear and wash the dishes.  When I asked if she and her family ever used the dining table she said that they did but only for special occasions, holidays, and family gatherings.  The table was reserved for when they had company and still only if the occasion required formality.  The table would be set with all the nicest dishes and utensils, and often bore some decoration having to do with the theme of the occasion.  She also told me that when the table was in use, she still was not allowed to use it.  The table was for adults only and she and her cousins and sister had to sit at the kitchen island and eat.  However, she and the other kids still had to help clean up the table when the meal was over.

Ashley’s experiences with her kitchen and table are vastly different from my own.  At one point, from a place both of curiosity and my own bias, I asked her how they kept the couches clean if they ate on them.  The reason my mother always cited for not allowing any food on the couches was that I would spill and get food on them.  But when I asked, Ashley just laughed.  She said that she had never thought about that before and that she didn’t think that she or her family ever spilled food anywhere.  She had white couches growing up, so she probably would have known if they did happen to spill something.

Learning about Ashley’s childhood table provided context for how she uses the kitchen table in our current living situation.  In her childhood she and her family almost never ate at the table and now she still almost never uses it for eating purposes.  She still likes to watch TV while she eats, and even went as far as to say that she feels “weird” when she doesn’t have anything to watch.  Based on her account of the white couches, I can infer that it was also part of her family’s mealtime culture to be especially neat eaters.  Based on my observations, I can confirm that she is in fact very tidy when she eats.  In our apartment, I can remember one distinct time that she did eat at the table; when we hosted several friends for dinner.  Just like in her home growing up, eating at the table is mostly reserved for special occasions.  For Ashley, the table means friends, family, and celebration.  It is not used for everyday eating which makes occasions all the more special for her when the table is eaten at.  I learned a lot more about my friend, and a food and eating culture that greatly contrasts my own.  This was a fun and interesting study that I hope helps me practice more cultural relativism when I learn about more different cultures in this class and in my daily life (Crowther XXI).

Works Cited:

Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological guide to food. Toronto: University of Toronto press. 2013.

Who Knew A Table Would Hold So Much Meaning? Sira Camara

My name is Sira and I am a rising sophomore at Emory University. I am currently in my hometown Harlem, New York City. I have a special background as I grew up in a Muslim & West African household (Guinea to be exact) Also, my family and I are specifically from the Maninka tribe from these regions. Being apart of all of these special backgrounds and identities has definitely shaped my relationship with food. I am conducting this experiment because I want to look at my family’s eating ritual at our table through a different lens. I want to observe this particular kitchen table that has been with my family for decades What I realized through this experiment was that my families cultural ritual is very special, unique and different. Originally for this experiment I was going to interview my mother, but since I already have so much background information on this particular table and is apart of this “daily cultural ritual” I chose to sit back and observe my family’s special dinner table before, during, and after a meal.

Normally, every home has one dining table. However, my family has two. There is one particular one that my parents refuse to throw away no matter how old it is. We tend to use this table when we are just eating as a family, even though we have a bigger, spacious, & modern dinner table. We use the modern table a little less. We would usually eat there if there as a backup if my family is visiting and there isn’t enough space at the old dining table. Either way, for every dinner meal we have, our traditional dining table is being used.My parents, all 6 of their children, my grandparents, family, and my friends have all eaten from this particular table. A little background about this table is that it is made from the same wood that a djembe was made from. A djembe is a West African drum made out of wood and animal skin. My grandmother gifted my father the djembe along with this particular table after he married my mother. My grandma has used this table during some time in her life, though I am not sure exactly when. 

Before dinner time I went to observe the table. It was rectangular, but it showed a lot of signs of wear as you look closer because the paint was peeling off. They have been painting the table over the years, to make it appear a little more brand new. I rubbed my hand across the table and it was smooth, some parts a bit rocky, and also cold. There are 6 wooden chairs around this table, that actually did not come with this table. There is no flowers or centerpiece at the middle. It looks dull, although it holds so much historical significance to the family. Underneath the table, is a green lime right in the center. The lime in my culture, is put around the house (by choice) because it is said to eliminate bad energy, evil eye, and evil/bad spirits. Sometimes, there would also be an unpeeled garlic. Thee garlic and lime is said to do the same thing and can be used interchangeably. The first thing put on the table is a huge wooden bowl with Moni. Moni in my culture is a staple meal. It is made from a special kind of oats called Sagnon in my language. (I had a hard time finding the English word.)  This is usually what we would eat first, since it is so light. Moni tastes very sweet. It is a traditional meal that is eaten in most or even all Maninka/Guinean households. The Moni is very hot, so when we are done pouring it into our bowls, someone would remove the wooden bowl from the table.I touched that specific part of the table where the Moni was at, and it was hot. It is also important to notice that my mother places the Moni bowl at the center of the table. She probable does this so that it is accessible to everyone who is seated at the table. Also, so that we can pour our own portions. I mention this because traditionally, the one who cooks a meal would pour Moni into everyone’s bowl before sitting down and having their own Moni bowl.

During the meal, there is a huge plate put in the center of the table. In my family, we all eat from one place, especially when eating traditional meals. This particular day we were eating Zame (also known as Jollof Rice). When the plate was put down, there was steam coming from the plate. The rice was spread out with colorful add ons such as green pepper & red pepper to make the dish look more appealing. Everyones is eating with their right hand, which is mandatory in my family. Also, when your right hand is placed in the meal, you must hold the edge of the plate with your left hand. This particular day, everyone was eating per usual and sharing stories about their day. Most times, the conversation would go off on a tangent and many random conversations would be held. After everyone is full, we would sit down for a little while continuing conversations so that we can “digest our food.” We would then begin to get up and wash our hands. My mother would begin shouting. “Table” she would say.  The younger siblings would shout “NOT IT.” Whoever says it last would be the sibling who has to wash down the tables and put the dishes in the sink, which in my house is considered the worst job ever. The other sibling would sweep any food that accidentally fell on the ground. After the table is washed down the table would go back to its normal state. The table is back to being dull, rectangular, with signs of wear now visible, and cold.

All of these common practices is what makes this particular table so special. I observed every bit of dinner time. I learned that we do so many special things that I didn’t even realize it because I am usually apart of the scenario. This experiment definitely made me very appreciative of my culture. The dining table in the kitchen that appears to be just a regular, worn out table, is a table that is apart of my childhood and early adulthood. This table represents family, love, laughter, and life for my family. It is definitely an important symbol and representation of our Maninka culture as well. When everyone moves out of my family’s home when we get older, I will ask my parents for this particular table. Even though I probably won’t use it in my future home, it will be placed in my home as decoration as it symbolizes family for me.

Journal #2 Naya Shim – What Goes Around Comes Back Around

My name is Naya Shim, and I am a Korean-American that can speak conversational mandarin, read, and write. On top of the language, I have been really interested in Chinese culture. However, I have never gotten the chance to gain much exposure from my hometown while learning the language. In college, I’ve had incredible opportunities to meet many friends and build relationships with both international and Asian-American students. As a result, I decided to conduct my study about my boyfriend’s table because when I first met the family, I was very nervous about making a good first impression. The last thing I wanted to do was be disrespectful of any of their daily routines, Chinese culture, and most importantly be impolite at the dining table with the wrong etiquette. For this, I had to carefully observe and pick-up on the dining rituals through participant observation and watching the people around me. I also interviewed my boyfriend, Alex, to gain a deeper and more personal perspective because I did not want to rely on my own personal observations where biases could have affected my journal entry!

My first visit entailed a week-long stay in their home, and the parents did not hesitate to make me feel welcome. One of the first things I was asked was if I was hungry and needed to eat. Once I arrived to the house there was a housekeeper living with them to cook and clean, which is very different to what I am used to at home. The nanny was old enough to be my grandmother, and I found it interesting that the mother and nanny would share the role of cooking in the house. This already gave me the impression that food is in fact a shared experience in Chinese culture. The dining table is also a part of an everyday routine. Alex: “Everyone is always kind of running on their own schedule but we always make it back together for dinner.” Dinner was a family meal with an elaborate dining setting for everyone to enjoy and catch up about their day. What supported this the most was the lazy susan in the middle of a table, which I’ve never seen before. My father talks about eating at restaurants with lazy susans during his business trips to China, so I did not expect to see one inside someone’s home-kitchen.

What interests me about my boyfriend’s table the most is the size and shape. I noticed a new flower from the backyard garden every day in the center of the table when it was not used for dining. The table was not really used for anything else other than eating. Observing the lazy susan on this small table made me wonder why it was necessary. When I asked in the interview whether or not there was a significance of the round table, his answer was “round tables are more traditional of Asian households, I think.” This was an interesting answer because my family and extended family have square or rectangular tables. I wondered if it was because my family was too westernized.

Alex’s round table was quaint enough for a family of four to dine there and comfortably reach for the food. However, the lazy susan served a large purpose on the small-midsize dinging table – harmony. Everyone gets the same opportunity to eat the many varieties of food by spinning it around to each family member without interrupting conversation. Alex: “Yeah, if it’s just the four of us it’s four/five dishes and three meats and two veggies. Oh and we also ALWAYS have soup to start with.” In the “Food and Drink Traditions” chapter of the reading, harmony was an ideal that was most present through the flavors, which really aided my understanding of dining with this new family (66). Dinner at the household always started with a soup or broth to warm our stomachs. As pictured, a typical dinner would include a variety of flavors from the sweet barbecue marinated beef ribs, salty vegetables, spicy stir-fry noodles, potatoes, and green spinach.

  There were harmonies amongst other cuisines as well, as lunch and dinner involved more casual meals such as pasta or steak. In fact, Alex even mentioned that “wooden placemats are made in Italy that we got during a family trip” without even knowing the background information about this class! A really interesting observation between the lazy susan and placemats – a mix of western and asian cultures.

Harmonies reflected on temperatures of food as well. Cold food was not served for breakfast and often consisted of noodles. I would wake-up in the morning craving eggs but the chicken broth never disappointed! It actually made me feel great waking up to something warm other than greasy bacon and eggs.

I have never had an authentic home-cooked Chinese/Cantonese meal before, but the food went beyond my expectations. My biases lie in the greasy, oily, unhealthy Chinese-American food that I’ve grown up with when ordering Chinese take-out. Through my own experiences in this house, I was able to overcome these personal biases. The food and medicine reading really helped me understand the medicinal and health connections that played a crucial role in the family’s daily routine.

Every night before bed, everyone was made a cup of hot water brewed with goji berries. My first cup was a bit hard to finish, but it was meant to help digest our dinner and food from the day, boost our metabolism, and warm our stomachs all before going to sleep. I now incorporate this into my daily routine back in Atlanta as well after feeling much better drinking the water (pictured below).

 

Formal dining does not occur on this dining table, but in a separate dining room with a long rectangular wooden table according to this interview. Perhaps the different shapes and sizes encourage a specific dining experience. I concluded that the small round table enforce an intimate setting where everyone can see and talk comfortably. It is accessible and everyone is an equal. A round table means no one is above another my sitting at the head of the table, yet the father is often served or offered the first take of the food first. Alex says that “no one eats at the table until everyone is seated.” My favorite part of the day during this trip was eating dinner because I felt so welcome into their home sitting elbow-to-elbow with all the family members. In essence, I already felt like a part of the family and not just any random stranger.  The lazy susan allows what goes around to come back around. A true shared dining experience. Through sharing and round spaces, the environment provided me a sense of safety and visibility. I felt seen and comfortable, which is why I believe I miss the home-cooked meals the most when thinking about my trip. The food and the way it was able to make me feel has left a long-lasting impression and definitely makes me want to go back again!

Thomas Nguyen: A Kitchen Table of Grand Proportions

My name is Thomas Nguyen, and I believe that the kitchen table is an essential part of eating food. Sure, it can be taken literally as a piece of furniture on which one eats food, but there is also another special meaning to it. Not only is it a place for eating, but it is also a place for communication and bonding over food in the family. When it comes to large families, it can be especially difficult to maintain that communication, especially when everyone is preoccupied with his or her own lives. However, the kitchen table can ultimately hold the family together as a unit. Because of this importance, I wanted to investigate how a kitchen table does that and how it ultimately becomes a key aspect of a family’s life.

I asked my friend Jennifer to help and used the anthropological methods of interview and participation-observation in accordance to Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther. Jennifer comes from a huge family of six children and eight people in the household total, so I was fascinated by how her small kitchen table could fit so many people and be the center of family activity. With these two methods, not only do I have an outsider perspective on her table, but I also had a personal insight as to how her kitchen table functions for her family. Combining these two methods would result in a full understanding of her kitchen table and its importance as the center of meals and family.

For a large family, Jennifer’s kitchen table is surprisingly small. It is a simple rectangular table near the stove with just enough room for entire family to sit. When Jennifer’s kitchen table is not in use for big meals like breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it is used as a convenient place for snacks and fresh fruits to be eaten at any time due to the various schedules of the members of her large family. However, when it is time for a big meal or celebration, the table is used as a cooking space by her mom to lay out fresh ingredients. The kitchen table is first covered in newspaper to keep it clean. The table is filled to the brim with fresh vegetables and cuts of meat as cooking for a large family requires a large amount of space. Jennifer and her siblings would come to the table to help their mom with cooking, and her youngest brother would set up the bowls and eating utensils for everyone in the family. Once the cooking is finished, everyone in the family gathers at the table to place the dishes and sit down. The dishes are placed so that they are in the center of the table for everyone to share while everyone has his or her own bowl of rice. This is the time when Jennifer’s family truly bonds. Despite everyone’s hectic schedule, they have all gathered at the kitchen table to share a delicious meal and discussed about their lives. As a participant and observer, I also personally noticed the general rapport of Jennifer’s family. During the meal, family members would share an issue that comes to mind, such as a problem at work or a future plan, and another member would immediately offer a solution and discuss the potential outcomes. The family would also joke around and share laughs over the humorous parts of their days while enjoying a delicious meal, furthering their good mood. After everyone has finished eating, the family members clean up the kitchen table and rearrange the fruits and snacks back in place for the next day, and everyone goes their separate ways to resume their busy lives.

To conclude, I have realized the importance of Jennifer’s kitchen table to her family. It is a central location and a guaranteed meeting place for everyone in the family despite their schedules. It is also a place to share a good meal when hungry, and the sharing aspect is further emphasized by the central dish that is accessible to everyone. The kitchen table is an area to catch up on life and a space for discussion and problem-solving. Most importantly, however, Jennifer’s kitchen table is a sacred space for family bonding and enjoying the wonders of life, including the rich stories of people, the delicious flavors of a meal, and the warmth of raw emotions.

Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. University of Toronto Press, 2013.

A small, but loving kitchen table(Hae Rim Lee)

Anyone who had ever been to WoodPEC might have noticed this guy posted at the center of the board. His name is Daniel Shin originally from South Korea who is now working as a personal trainer at Emory. I first met him at the welcoming party for the freshmen about five years ago and he was sitting right in front of me sharing the same dinner table. Naturally, we started our first rather awkward conversation, but soon became intimate by talking about each other’s interests and concerns. Since then, I realized that the dinner table is more than just a table and it has the power to connect people with each other and help them to relax and feel comfortable.

When I read this assignment to write about the kitchen table, no one else popped up in my head, but just Daniel as we became the best friends by sharing the same dinner table. Even though he was born in Korea, he lived in China for a couple of years as well as in the United States as he attended high school there. Since he experienced these diverse cultures from Asia to America, I thought it would be very interesting to observe and investigate his kitchen table.

The anthropological method I used for the investigation was the participant-observation involving a fieldwork accompanied with the interview. According to the book “Eating Culture; An Anthropological Guide to Food” by Gillian Crowther, the hands-on activities like a fieldwork help the observer to better understand and truly share the outcome of what he or she is trying to study. Following this notion, I thought the best way to fully understand Daniel’s kitchen table was to actually use the table together for a day under his permission and then carefully record how it is being used as a cultural artifact. In order to listen to his opinion about his kitchen table directly, I interviewed him as well after the fieldwork was done.

As I walked into his house, the first place that welcomed me was the kitchen. However, I could not see anything that looked like a “table” which was my main focus of today’s visit. I asked him where the table is and he simply pointed a small space in the kitchen. To me, it looked more of like a shelf rather than a kitchen table. On this small table just behind the sink, I could see his car key and water bottle, but the thing that caught my eye was a book about nutrition. He told me that before he eats a meal on the kitchen table, he reads this book about nutrition which is the field he is interested in and keeps studying for his future. Before the meal, I could find that the kitchen table was used as a place to study.

During the meal, I looked at the dishes he prepared and could better understand the quote in our prompt that “Every meal is a message, and where we eat is as important as what we eat in getting the message across.” The dishes included rice, Kimchi, bread, beef patties, broccoli, chicken breast, salted seafood, and curry. While the eating habit that has been established when he was young and the eating culture of his own country are the most crucial factors in deciding the menu of his table, the place where he stays is another important aspect that has an impact on his kitchen table. Since he is in the United States where he cannot get Korean food as easy as he could get when he was in Korea, he buys American food like Uncle Dave’s bread or beef patties at places with easy accessibility like Kroger or Walmart. It was also interesting to find three different sauces for the beef patties. One was a spicy sauce from Korea, another was the sesame teriyaki sauce from Asia, and the last was the classic barbeque sauce that most Americans enjoy eating. Just by looking at the different sauces, I could see the different cultures of Asia and America were merged into one plate. Daniel also told me that he often eats the meal with his brother.  By sharing stories about their daily life while eating together, they feel more connected to each other. They also enjoy eating food from Korea especially Korean curry and salted seafood that are sincerely prepared by their mom. By eating those dishes together, I could feel the affection and love from his parents and made me miss my family back in Korea too.

To Daniel, the kitchen table was more than just a eating table just as I realized in the dinner reception where Daniel and I became friends through the table.  It is a place of studying about his field of interest, it is a place of gathering where he feels more connected with his brother by sharing their concerns,  and it is a place of nostalgia that reminds him of the time he spent with his family by eating sincerely prepared food by his mother. Even though his kitchen table is relatively small and I am not even sure whether others would even regard it as a kitchen table or not, there is no doubt that the investigation of Daniel’s kitchen table through participant-observation led me to understand  Malinowski’s final goal of studying food, that is, “To grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

Works Cited

Eating Culture; An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Crowther

 

Echo’s Kitchen Table – Chinese-Western Mixture Style (Jenny Zong)

I am staying with my friend, Echo Wang, in New York City right now. She is my elementary school’s classmate and we keep our friendship through all these years. We are from the same town, Shanghai. We share similar life experience; we spent our childhood in China, and we studied in United States for our college.  The merge of two distinct culture influence our kitchen tables. I want to study how her kitchen table is different from mine and how the cultural significance influences her kitchen table.

Her table will be a good example to study. She just moved into her apartment this week. She needed to prepare her kitchen table from scratch. All her shopping choices for her kitchen, which reflects her cultural identities will be interesting to study. From “Eating Culture- An Anthropological Guide to Food” by Gillian Crowther, “Through making spatial and temporal comparisons and applying cultural relativism”, it “highlights the importance of local responses to global food system and their ability to reinvigorate and maintain distinct cultural identities through food.” (p.23) As Echo is a girl from China and living in USA, she is a good example to examine how her local responses to Western or global food system, and how she reinvigorates and maintain distinct cultural identities through food. I will use the participant observation as my main anthropological method to study. Then I will use the interview method to ask for her own insights and opinions.

According to “Eating Culture”, participant observation method involves helping with food getting, preparing ingredients, cooking, cleaning (p.21). Therefore, I went with Echo every time she went to a grocery store. I helped every dish that she cooks and also helped to clean afterwards. For food getting, we went to typical American style grocery stores 3 times and then we went to a Chinese style grocery store once. All the food from the American style grocery lasted for 4 days and then we went to the Chinese grocery store. For typical American style grocery stores, she picked chicken breasts and steak for meat; spinach, celery, tomatoes, green pepper and French green beans for vegetable; oat milk, eggs and butter for dairy products; figs, strawberries and cherries for fruits. The food that prepared from these ingredients are mostly Western style dishes: salt and pepper on the beef steak, salt and pepper on the pan-fried chicken breast, scrambled eggs, raw celery. Two dishes that were in Chinese style dish are garlic flavored French beans or sliced green pepper and fried tomatoes with scrambled eggs. The ingredients that she chose were abundant and basic in Western or global food systems. Her cooking style of all these ingredients were in Western style. The only difference was in the cooking of vegetables. Chinese people do process almost all veggies in frying pans. She put some oil and fried the sliced garlic first and then put the French green beans and sliced green pepper in. She did not choose the way that Americans usually cook – steam or boil the vegetable and then put some seasoning or butter on it.

Steak, Green pepper, Scrambled Eggs and Cherries

After several days without any Chinese style seasoning and ingredients, Echo and I went to a Chinese grocery store. She went straight to the seasoning aisle and noodle aisle. She took all the seasonings that almost every Shanghainese family have: two different types of soy sauces, vinegar from Zhejiang Province, sesame oil, red spicy oil and corn starch. She also spent a lot on the meat section, especially for pork, beef shank and chicken hearts. These are the rare ingredients in other grocery stores. She also shopped in the frozen food section, got some Chinese style buns, dumplings and prepared Gyudon (Japanese style beef on the rice). After the shopping, she prepared the dinner with variable Chinese dishes. However, I noticed the western style dish is still on her kitchen table: the way of cooking the meat. Chinese style of cooking the chicken is usually pan-fried. However, she chose to boil the chicken breast. She did not use the Chinese seasoning for the chicken. Then, she cooked noodles for the main dish.

Chinese seasoning we bought

To summarize the findings which I observed from her kitchen table, I recognized that she was influenced by Western style cuisine. She always cooked the meat with salt and pepper; she enjoys eating raw vegetables. Even with Chinese seasoning, she will not choose to flavor the meat with it. However, she also cannot live without any Chinese dishes in her cooking. There must be one Chinese dish on the table. It can be noodle or the way of cooking the vegetables. After cooking, we all washed the dishes. She uses the Chinese way of cleaning the dishes – no dishwasher, but hand wash. She uses the Chinese dish cloth, which her parents brought from Shanghai to her, to clean the dishes. The biggest difference from my family is that she does not use any dish detergent, but only the hot water to rinse.

These are the dishes after we went to the Chinese grocery store – Mayi ShangShu (rice noodle with shredded pork), Fried vegetable and baked sweet potatoes

After all the observation, I conducted a short interview with her. I mentioned about the way of western style meat cooking on her kitchen table, she commented that she learned from her US friends that this is a healthier way. She believes that less oil, less seasoning in the diet is a healthier way of cooking protein. She also really enjoys eating raw vegetable after she came to US. She mentioned that there were not much of vegetable choices on campus for her; the most abundant ones are salads. She was not used to it at first, as she wanted cooked vegetables in Chinese style. She was surprised how she mixed Chinese and Western style of cooking in her dishes, when I told her how my family usually cook the similar dish in Shanghai. Echo also pointed out a very interesting point: she studied in Britain for a year. She put oat milk in her black tea now, while Chinese people will not add anything in the tea. The mixture of the culture influences every bit of her kitchen table now.

Echo and I have similar culture background. We both enjoyed a lot of her cooking – the mixture of Western style and Chinese style. The local food sources influenced us to cook for Western style cuisines, but we still eager Chinese style cuisine. The mixture of two culture significances hugely make up Echo’s kitchen table. I believe, it is the unique style of food cooking among Chinese students who study abroad in Western countries.

Works Cited:

Crowther, Gillian. Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food.University of Toronto Press, 2013.