"When I moved into my first home, before I did anything else, I bought a table, a table not just to eat at, but to live around." Nigella Lawson
These are the first words in one of my Christmas gift cookbooks - Nigella Lawson's At my table. So here I go a-rambling around the table.
The first thing is that I doubt this is true - I think the first thing we bought was a bed, and the second a chair to sit in. But then the first unfurnished flat that we moved into had furniture that the previous tenant was willing to sell and so we bought it all. It included a simple table but no chairs, because I remember buying some of those bentwood chairs from a second-hand store for a song, painting them a bottle green and making some orange cushions for them. Well it was the 60s. We were into bright colours back then. We brought them all the way to Australia with us. I think our first flat might have been furnished, although I do remember buying the bed - it was my parents' wedding present. And I must have bought a cooker at some point too as English unfurnished flats did not come with such things. Look I'm already rambling. All I meant to say is that, essential as a table is - or was - back then - it's not the first necessity.
After all, these days the trend seems to be to sit around on the couch and eat take-away off your lap, as demonstrated in every episode of The Big Bang theory - the long running and I suppose, seminal soap opera of the age. Below is the quintessential scene that occurs in every single episode.
In one episode Bernadette and Wolowitz bought a table to be more civilised but it was not a success. Everyone went back to the couch. And why not? After all, the main reason for sitting around a table is usually couched in somewhat sentimental terms which speak to the soul but are perhaps a bit idealistic.
"A shared meal is a special meal, even pantry pasta. For me, family time around the dinner table is essential. It is an opportunity to talk with our children about the world around us, to debate, laugh, and share our love for each other." Sarah Murdoch
Do you really have to sit around a table to do this? The Big Bang crew demonstrate that there is comradeship in sitting around on couches, even the floor eating food. The key thing is the gathering together over food. You can be at a table eating food and not being comradely. I temporarily lost the comradely battle when my children were in their teens, when my husband allowed a portable television to be on the table whilst we ate. There was no recording of programs back in those days. I protested violently about this and tried my utmost I suppose to interrupt the programs - Home and Away? and the news perhaps. I think the television was a very bad move. However, to this day my husband does not like to spend long at the dining table - when it's just we two I mean. I suspect that this is probably because his own family did not do this, for various reasons, one of which might have been that they may not even have had a table We, on the other hand always did where we often noisily and heatedly argued about life, the universe and everything. It was a family so an argument rather than a debate. My sons on the other hand seem to like to have the family around the table at dinner time - or at least gathered together over the evening meal when, as has sometimes happened, there has been no table.
Nevertheless it seems that we do tend to improvise tables when we can. Nigella quotes the fact that initially the Space Station did not have a table - well zero gravity makes this tricky. But the astronauts asked for one because they wanted "to sit around a table at the end of the day and eat like humans." And so one was provided and the food packets were velcroed to the table so that they would not float away. In this case I guess the table is providing an impetus to take time out from the daily grind and gather together over food to perhaps talk of other things, or nut out a problem.
I dived into my back catalogue of photographs in an attempt to find suitable photographs to illustrate the family table thing, but of course I mostly found pictures of celebratory dinners such as Christmas where everyone is posed and raising a glass, or cutting a cake. We just don't take pictures of the everyday do we? And even if we do we ask people to pose, to smile for the camera. I did find four about which a few words:
The first is of myself and two of our oldest and dearest university friends camping in Yugoslavia in our first summer after finishing university. David took the picture so does not appear. I have my mouth full, and as usual look dreadful. But again an idyllic memory of youth I suppose. A time when we were all in love and unencumbered. But I remember we sought out a campsite next to that battered wooden table at which we ate all our extremely simple, but still remembered meals. this one was lunch and we may well have been talking about life in Yugoslavia under Tito - so different from 1960s England.
Then here we are with the same two friends on our first trip back to England after leaving for Australia with a baby and toddler in tow. A semi-improvised picnic in a park - maybe even at our university because our friends lived near there and we did visit. The blanket is our improvised table and look we have even used the esky as an extra table. The conversation now is probably about how life has changed and the joys and frustrations of parenthood.
Thirdly - a Christmas breakfast with our nuclear family in Adelaide and a pile of weetbix and mince pies. I suspect the weetbix was more popular than the mince pies. We ate our meals at this table looking out over the hillside and out to sea. We would talk and argue and laugh, sometimes in a hurry because we had to get to school and to work, sometimes without David who was often away, but without that dratted television.
The last is of lunch in retirement years, consisting of bought delicacies from patisseries and charcuteries and consumed on a hired boat on the Canal du Midi with some of our dearest friends. A beautiful moment in our lives, characterised by one friend saying, rather dreadfully, if you think too deeply about it, "I wonder what the poor people are doing right now?" This statement, I hasten to say, was meant to convey the opinion that we were extremely fortunate and could not have considered such a luxury when young, as we had all grown up relatively poor. And yes it was luxury and yet the meal was simple and the table was plastic and unadorned. It was the company and the setting that made it.
But I see I have rambled well away from Nigella. Interestingly, if the focus of the book is how food brings people together then perhaps you would expect more pictures of people happily chatting and sitting around a table. Most of her television programs certainly do this ad infinitum. And yet although every recipe is lavishly illustrated with a picture, sometimes two of the dish in question, the only pictures of tables are those at the beginning of the book - on the very first page in fact - at the top of the page, and on the very last page - shown below. And both of them are bereft of people.
I assume they are her own tables. She does talk of a zinc topped one as shown in the last one. But isn't it ironic, that in spite of her well-expressed and doubtless sincere words about gathering together around a table, these tables are empty of people. It's a little sad. They are merely beautiful. I wonder if she does make them as pretty as this every day? I guess it's not very difficult to do, and I do try a little bit. But they are a long way away from the haphazard tables I found above. And I noticed that the table in Jamie's COVID video shows was pretty much unadorned, but fashionably rustic.
No, NIgella's tables look like special occasion tables don't they? They may not even be hers of course. But why can't we do the same every day? I'm sure we all have nice plates, good cutlery, pretty napkins - even if made of paper - and lots of accoutrements besides. Not to mention the possibility of flowers, although these tend to get in the way of conversation I feel.
As well as looking through my photo collection I also looked at two of my books which I knew were all about the table - the Australian Women's Weekly Christmas book and Guillaume Brahimi's Food for Family to find pictures that demonstrated a combination of beauty and conviviality. Both feature obviously stage-managed meals - the first various kinds of Christmas celebrations peopled by models if anyone at all, and the second peopled by the rich and the beautiful of Sydney. Like Nigella The Australian Women's Weekly went for the setting rather than the people although Guillaume Brahimi was somewhat better. People seem to have actually sat down and eaten the meals described and in the process talked avidly to each other. Very special occasions though - a top chef, a professional photographer to take the pictures and rich, glamorous people in luxury settings. Something to aspire to perhaps? The best example that could perhaps be copied by anyone on a smaller scale was Cate Blanchett's family and friends - shown below. The other people-less setting is from The Australian Women's Weekly. Simpler and doable - but no people.
Maybe we shouldn't make a perfect table. After all it's a bit daunting isn't it? Are you using the right fork, will you knock over the flowers, can you see through the flowers, what if you drop some food down your front? Maybe it's best to stick to the rough and ready, even sit on the floor. Maybe save the fancy stuff for special occasions. Then they will truly be special, though I seem to have demonstrated that the best memories are all to do with place and people with a little bit about the food and not much about the fancy stuff. But I do think it's important that we take time out with our family everyday, and with our friends and extended family every now and then to just sit down and chat and over a meal is to my mind the only way and has been since the dawn of time.