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Arts and Culture

Bread And Butter: At The Kitchen Table

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I grew up, the whole of my life, with one dining room table. It’s heavy but thin. Angular when collapsed and smoothed outsides in the middle when extended to fit our large family. It still sits in my parents’ home. Every trip we make, we gather around, meals piled in the middle to be served counterclockwise, surrounded by dishes and condiments and as I sit, time bridges and it feels just as it did all of my growing up years: towers of biscuits and bowls of gravy, taco salad mixed to the perfect nacho cheese chip to lettuce ratio, chocolate pudding pies, a work surface for canning and bread making. It was our home’s heartbeat, figuratively, but literally as well, situated where it was, in the upper left corner as seen from the front door. As things changed, people moved out, paint done and redone, it was the forever constant.

I remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen. Not in the house she lived in while I was growing up, but the one she lived in while my mom was growing up, drinking out of those tall aluminum glasses (probably milk, but never water) and sitting at the picture-perfect mid-century diner-style table that was tucked over near the door that passed from kitchen to dining room. There was a dining room table, as well, but I can’t place any memory where I was sitting at it, only passing by it. She brought us to this house every summer, two hours away from my home and my books, to make sure the house was ok and everything was sound in the months she lived away. While there we would eat exotic things like jarred orange sandwich spread with cold cuts, grocery store bread, and strawberry soda. She’d let us walk down the highway to the dot of a town’s log general store and buy candy or popsicles. A treat. I can’t remember a table in the home she lived in during my youth, but I’m certain there was one; ratan chairs, maybe? More often than not, Grandma didn’t live for formality, bowls of cereal on our laid out sleeping bags, counting the hours by cartoons until time to go home. Grandma also didn’t really cook. Maybe that’s where the absence of table in my memories comes from. Fast food in the car on the way back to her house didn’t really require any real flat surface.

Since I’ve been married, we’ve had four tables I can recall. A small, big-box model made of natural wood with matching chairs we purchased soon after relocating out of state for grad school. A big, cream-colored oval table handed down from my sister to replace our starter one. It felt big and important for our just starting family. A perfectly square counter height with matching chairs that felt so grown up but soon became lost in our new home’s square footage. And our current and forever table, a long, dark wooden one with collapsible leaves flanked with a bench and four chairs of different colors. A little nice. A little funky. A little bit us in every way.

I feel strongly about eating meals at the kitchen table anchored by a strong belief that the kitchen table is the family hub. Plates and utensils are placed, properly. Food in serving dishes to be passed and shared. But…things also change. Time has definitely marched on from my days sitting in my childhood dining room or at my Grandmother’s mid-century drop leaf kitchen table. Sometimes food is dished where it was cooked and plates taken from there. Sometimes food is dished and shared amid laughter with a favorite show, our coffee table standing strong, trying to live up to its calling for the evening. Sometimes food is eaten at the kitchen bar, some sitting, some standing as we discuss the plan for the day or how fates conspired toward a fend for yourself meal, cooked and eaten in shifts and spurts. On those ‘sometimes’ my strong feelings tug at my guilt and I feel I’m failing at something that I thought meant a lot to me; something that I have no need to feel guilt over.

But even on those ‘sometimes’ days, we’re still together. We’re still talking, laughing, sharing bites off plates and bites of our day. Does it really matter if we’re not always around the heartbeat of the home? If my strong feelings are about strong communities being born of the kitchen table and my family has every strong marker I could have ever wanted, why am I loathe to let go of this one ideal that is only an ideal in my mind?

As my family grows, I think about all of this. The goal is to share a meal and our lives. My kitchen table isn’t going anywhere and will be used more often than not. I’m learning to let go of the ‘not times’ in favor of the strong bond flexibility seemingly allows. Smooth those middles to fit my whole family, not just me.