Blog 2 Aunt Babs’s Kitchen Table of Unconditional Love (Hana Keith)


For this study, I have chosen my Aunt Barbarina’s kitchen table. My Aunt “Babs” lives in Gainesville, Virginia with her husband (Uncle Dan) and two kids (Alexandria and Sean). Using the examples of anthropological methods from our reading, Eating Culture An Anthropological Guide to Food, I have chosen two anthropological methods as tools for this kitchen table analysis: an (over the phone) structured interview and my past participant observations. The reason I have chosen an over-the-phone interview is simply the logistical fact that my Aunt Babs lives 1000 miles away. Therefor, I am not able to physically be in the kitchen observing them at this particular moment. However, I can rely on both this structured interview and my previous observations while visiting their home numerous times in the past. I know their kitchen as well as my own.

The kitchen area is in the main part of their house. It connects to other areas such as the family room, the welcome area, the bedrooms, and the stairs to the basement. Walking into the house, one can almost immediately observe the kitchen area, if not already lead there by the glorious smells emanating therein. During my interview, Aunt Babs informed me that they spend more time together in the kitchen than in any other part of their house, and of course as in any room, there is a common focal point for gathering.

Within this kitchen, there is a special kitchen table, a table that has been around for over two decades. Some people might see this table as a mere uni-dimensional table, but my Aunt Babs has explained to me in our interview that it is far more multi-dimensional. It represents her familial bonding area. Not only is their kitchen table used for consuming delicious meals, it is also used for much more. Aunt Babs explained that their kitchen table serves as a communication hub, work hub, celebration hub, and everything in between. Their kitchen table basically serves as a life hub.

The delicious smells from her kitchen are indelibly imprinted in my mind. I have observed on numerous occasions walking into Aunt Babs’s kitchen for a Christmas dinner and smelling all of the unique, mouth-watering scents that permeated the whole house. Watching my family cook was quite a sight to see. There were many chefs in this kitchen, all working on different parts of the meal, truly performing like a symphony. This is one case where there were never too many chefs in this kitchen. Despite having adequate counter space, many of the chefs gravitated to that same, special kitchen table to prepare their portion of the meal masterpiece. Food preparation was a family bonding moment because one could observe the collaboration and communication of several generations of family members. Once the meal was properly prepped, the younger generation would set this same table with utensils, drinking glasses and place-mats. In my observation from preparation to presentation to consumption, this same table was truly multitasking.

Aunt Babs told me that her kitchen table serves as a communication area for their family to have tough discussions as well as simple, casual conversations. She revealed that when her family goes through hard times, the kitchen table serves as a place to discuss and hopefully resolve conflicts. As a younger child, my cousins and I would always be drawn back to the kitchen table after hours of play in the basement, our families still sitting at that same kitchen table long after the food had been consumed. Loud bursts of laughter continued well into the night. Who would have thought that the kitchen table would be a popular venue for standup comedy. Aunt Babs also explained that whenever their neighborhood friends come to visit, the majority of the time is spent at that same kitchen table, catching up on all things good and bad. She was quick to point out that even though this table was within their home, it has been a decidedly effective communication hub with the outside world as the family gathers around for FaceTime or phone call conversations to the rest of the world. Not to be a coincidence, this FaceTime structured interview occurred with her sitting right at that very same kitchen table.

The kitchen table also serves as a “work station” on which my relatives do homework and school projects or for my Aunt Babs’s preparing business proposals for her company. During my internship with her this past summer, I knew this table well as she mentored me in the various aspects of running her company. My observation was that quite a lot of work can be done on a proper kitchen table with a cup of tea and some fresh biscottis.

Their kitchen table also serves as a celebration center. When they celebrate birthdays, special events such as a high school graduation, or other holidays such as Christmas, they spend most of their time celebrating in the kitchen area. For example, I observed in previous Easters, my cousins would use the kitchen table to dye Easter eggs and make an Easter bunny cake.

(My cousin, Alex, opening her graduation present (stethoscope) at the kitchen table)

(An early morning Christmas breakfast at the kitchen table)

(A family picture with Alex, Noni, and myself sitting at the kitchen table)

Aunt Babs’s family and extended family have a very special connection to her kitchen table. My cousins have lived in that same house with that same table for their entire lives. All of the scratches and dings represent far more than just blemishes on this table, the represent historical life events… the equivalent of carbon dating their lives. Aunt Babs explained to me there are so many amazing and unique life memories from every defect on that table. While it bares witness to many of our life’s ups and downs, fortunately most were up, and despite all of these years, it still stands strong. The kitchen table has become a part of their own family, and while they could have replaced it long ago, it just would not be the same.

From my personal experience, past observations and this recent interview, I used to believe that the warm atmosphere around this kitchen table was from the huge windows bringing in amiable sunlight or perhaps the soft chairs around the big wooden table. But using the anthropological methods described above, I recognized that this table is much more. It is a communication hub, it is a work station, it is a celebration center; it is all of these things and more. It is, as Aunt Babs said, a life hub!

Aunt Babs emphasized that the kitchen table was about unconditional love, love of life, love of family and friends, love of work. Based on this structured interview and my observations, both present and historical, I can unconditionally confirm that Aunt Babs’s table is all of these things, truly multidimensional.


Eating Culture An Anthropological Guide to Food by Gillian Growther

An Antique Source of Love (June Sohn)

June Sohn is my full name. Like many cultures, children always follow their fathers’ last names, so I was automatically named Sohn after my father. A patriarchal society, Korea always emphasizes the importance of people’s ability to connect with their paternal ancestors. As a result, it was often easy to forget the importance of my maternal relatives. It is ultimately both my mother and father who created and raised me. The more aware I grew about this societal bias, the more I became interested in my maternal ancestry. I want to flip this notion of patriarchy and call attention to my mother and her family. To delve more into my mother’s life, I decided to use participant observation to watch my mother’s direct kinswoman: my maternal grandmother. Initially, the plan was to interview my grandmother and participate in her cooking, but because my grandmother refuses to make her grandchildren do any work at her house, I was forced to sit on the massage chair to simply observe her. It is important in studies to honor the participants’ opinions and desires, so I complied without hesitation. Though limited in direct experience, participant observation allows for objective watching of details that might be missed when actually involved in the cooking process. I was able to observe everyday tasks, the key element of participation observation as mentioned in Eating Culture by Gillian Crowther. This allowed for not only visual observations, but also the “feel, smell, and taste, of food that is essential” (Crowther, 21). Through this practice, I was able to truly understand the culture of my mother, and ultimately myself.

There’s a table that I’ve grown up with at my grandmother’s house. It is dark-chocolate brown with hints of light bread-like color intertwined throughout. The four legs that hold the table up stand tall, curved like a windy day’s wave. The tabletop is shiny with not a fingerprint to be seen, and the surface is icy cold. It’s large enough to sit six people, one seat more than the number of people in my mother’s family. I have eaten at this table since I was born, and I have always seen it in pictures of my mother when she was a child. It seems too clean to be an antique, but this table has an extensive history that can perhaps teach me about my maternal family. In fact, this table was the first piece of furniture that my grandmother purchased after building her own house in the 70’s, even before my mother was born. It has endured through the happiest days and through the darkest moments. It’s also quite unique in how it’s used. It is not solely used for eating; it’s a place to organize medicine and vitamins, a spot for spontaneous study sessions, and even an area for cooking.

When I asked my grandmother to cook for me so I could observe her, she happened to be using this table to cook. She was planning to make me some Songpyeon, a rice cake dish that closely resembles a dumpling but is made of glutinous rice instead of flour and sugar and sesame instead of meat fillings. All the objects that were placed atop the table, including medicine, vitamins, and even bags, were put on the ground to make room for the dough. A handful of flour was spread across the glossy table as my grandmother began rolling out the dough. She rolled and cut the dough so quickly that it was difficult to locate her hands. She then immediately put some sesame-sugar mixture into the center of the dough, swiftly closed it up, and tightly sealed the Songpyeon. The same process was repeated for around 50 minutes and around 100 little Songpyeons were made. My grandma then placed them into a steamer, where she cooked the Songpyeon with a hint of pine leaves. As the rice cake was cooking, my grandmother busily began to dust all flour off the table and wiped it down with a tablecloth. She placed two green table mats on top of the newly cleaned table. After 30 minutes, she took the Songpyeon out, placed them into pretty bowls, and gathered all my relatives around the table. The 12 of us congregated around the table, with some standing and others sitting. Everyone devoured the Songpyeon, feeding those sitting next to us. Our grandma constantly brought more Songpyeon out, until everyone complained of full stomach. The complaint did not stop her; she insisted on “one more bite” until everyone screamed, “STOP!”

This experience made it clear where my mother’s sacrificial love sprouted from. This love was what nurtured me and shaped me into who I am today. It arose from the concept of “jung” that developed around the kitchen table. “Jung” is a word that has no direct translation in English. It is a notion of love, sacrifice, warmth, and friendship all mixed into one feeling. When someone feeds you too much, it’s often out of “jung.” When someone gives you all they have, it is also because of “jung.” This day when everyone crowded around an old but important table is when I saw more deeply into my mom’s, and therefore my grandmother’s, heart. There was a reason the table was kept for so long. It’s like a fuel that kindles a sense of “jung” like no other. It’s what shaped my mom. It’s what shaped me.

My Shanghainese friend’s kitchen table (Helen Zeng)

My family and I moved to Shanghai two years ago and settled there. As a new incomer, I cannot speak Shanghainese and often feel distant from the city. I am eager to know more about the place that I live in each day, and more importantly, about the local culture. Food, as an important part of every Chinese’s daily life, is the key to fit in.  

Moreover, since my family just bought our own apartment in Shanghai and we are going to decorate it, I am also interested in learning what kind of kitchen table can last for a long time and carry beautiful memory. That’s why I am conducting a study about a kitchen table of a Shanghainese family.

My friend Lu is a traditional Shanghainese girl, and from her character, I know that she must live in a harmonic family. I contacted her and she welcomed me to have lunch with her in a lovely Saturday noon. The first thing I saw when I went into her home was the kitchen table. The kitchen table is different from the one in my home. They are both made of mahogany, but Lu’s is rectangular and mine is a round one. There were only two boxes of napkins on it. Lu told me that nothing would be on the dining table except for dishes. They all have their own desks and thus they won’t work on the kitchen table. Even all three of them are at home, they work separately in their own rooms. But they would eat together around the kitchen table, and during the meal is when they communicate the most. Kitchen table brings the family together.

As we were randomly chatting, her parents brought the food they just cooked to the table and we started eating. We talked about some rules in the kitchen table during eating. For example, you should not make noise while eating, should not put the piece of food you touch back to the dish, should eat everything up in your own bowl. Her parents said they have been serious about these rules ever since Lu was little. They believe that eating habits can reveal one’s manner; they want her to be not only educated, but also genteel. They all obey these rules while we were eating together. And I did the same as well. I used to have a bad habit of leaving a little bit of food in my bowl when I finished, but this time I ate everything in my bowl like them.

After the lunch, we had some cheesecake together on the kitchen table. Lu’s mom talked about the history of the kitchen table. It’s a mahogany furniture that follows the decoration style back in Ming dynasty. Different from the design style of Qing dynasty, the Ming one is simple yet serious. There are exquisite carve patterns on the woodwork, while those patterns are decent enough so that people won’t be tired of looking at it even after a long time. Lu’s family redecorated their home two years ago and gave away many things but the kitchen table.

When I conduct the study, I choose the anthropological method of  participant-observation. As the author said in the “Eating Culture”, “participant observation involves trying to gain an insider’s to epic perspective on a culture and simultaneously apply an outsider’s or metic perspective to draw wider conclusions about how the culture and society works.” I think that compared to interviewing Lu and let her to tell me about her kitchen table, going to her home, looking at and eating on the kitchen table by myself would be a more direct way for me to learn about the culture and story behind the kitchen table. It helps me to not only learn about the objective facts but also to have my own feelings about it. 

During the study, I also think of my own family. Like Lu, I also study in emory far away from home and my parents are busy in work even at home, so eating in the kitchen table seems to be the some of the precious time we share together. Same things happen to my parents, too. They don’t live with their parents for a long time. Now, the most of the time they spend with their parents is on the kitchen table. When they go back to Nanning, they call their parents, “hey mom, I want to have a lunch at your home today.” Then they share their recent condition during the meal and leave after the meal to deal with other things. 

Kitchen table is a carrier of love in the family. Parents teach children about the culture and rules about eating; the child is cultivated. When the children grow up, kitchen table brings the busy family members together, offer a place where the family can focus on only eating and each other. Parents prepare food and bring to the kitchen table for us and we don’t need to think about food problem, it is also an act of love.