Models Monday: The Dinner Table (Thoughts on “Table Talk”)

This weekend, I was reading the Huffington Post’s “Family Dinner Table Talk” blog and it reminded me of my own experiences at the dinner table. I came of age sharing dinner at the table with my family every evening, and it wasn’t an uncommon experience among the folk I knew. When I shared meals with friends and neighbors, we always sat at a table. It was an experience that seemed to cut across class as my high school peers who came from modest and wealthy families alike told stories about meals at the dinner table. It was something that I assumed was a common practice…and maybe it was–once.

I think it is important to honor the food we eat, the work of securing it, as well as the time and effort required for preparing it. Even on those rare occasions when I am taking a meal by myself, I still pause to savor the flavor and the experience as a tribute to my work, the food, and the day. I’m beginning to think that if you do not feel the need to do that, then it says something about the food you’re eating. Perhaps fast-food and vending machine fare don’t suggest the need to create a sacred ritual around them, which makes a strong case against routinely eating it. A good meal can be humbling and inspire reverence; awe. And in my experience, it’s the kind of reverence that moves you to talk–if nothing else, it moves you to saying, “Lord have mercy this is good!”

Good food makes me want to shout! I have another friend who is this way. She and I talk all while we eat. One of the things that I remember saying to my grandmother when I was a child was “Boy grandma, this is goooood!” She thanked me for the compliment. She even came to ask me for dinner suggestions, and was surprised when I would ask for things like split-pea soup. “You want that?” she inquired. Absolutely I wanted it. My heavens, I enjoyed my grandmother’s cooking. I don’t know what it was about certain meals that inspired so much reverence but I enjoyed the experience of trying to figure that out. Sometimes, that’s what I talked about. My friend, who also talks while she eats, does the same thing. We were both surprised to learn that people found it odd that we proclaimed our joy while eating. The recognition helped me to instantly understand Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast.” As she writes,  “[u]sually in Berlevaag people did not speak much while they were eating.” After taking a few bites of Babette’s food, things changed, and as Dinesen notes, “somehow this evening tongues had been loosened.” (For a beautifully illustrated and thorough engagement with Dinesan’s short story and the film based on it, check out Jama’s Alphabet Soup blog by following the embedded link.)

The conversation around the dinner table when I was a child was never contrived and perhaps it was because the food was always good, which made the talk easy. Of course there were meals that weren’t my favorites but that didn’t stop them from being somebody’s; so they talked, I listened, and I thought about my food. I thought about how I enjoyed the potatoes and the carrots in the stew but not the beef. I wondered how people around the table could just bite into the meat and not think about the fat. I wondered if I could just ask for the vegetables without the meat. I wondered how my dinner companions came to enjoy beef stew over toasted bread. Thus, when I wasn’t proclaiming my enthusiasm for a meal out loud, then I was thinking about it to myself. Good eating inspires both civil engagement and careful reflection, the complete antithesis of the “food fight” and so a much better model by which to live.

I was reminded of a post I made about the dinner table about a year ago now. I decided to re-post it today. In light of the remarks that I shared today, I see the Baby Phat ad as more of a commentary on the food than I did when I first composed it. On Thanksgiving, Kimora Lee Simmons posted wonderful photographs of her family around the family table:

KLS Thanksgiving 2011.

I found these photographs much more appealing than the ostensible glamour of the advertisement–you can follow the link to see more. What follows is my original post.

Sometimes I see advertisements that force me to really work at understanding the desires they seek to arouse. More pointedly, I find myself straining to make sense of what I’m supposed to want. The narratives of the ads aren’t always apparent. So while I understand that I’m supposed to want to wear the clothing that Kimora Lee Simmons and her daughters are wearing since Baby Phat makes that their business, I’m not sure why this image makes these goods attractive. While I really enjoy eating, there is no food here. There is nothing that makes my mouth water…but I guess all of my salivating is supposed to occur over all of the expensive stuff on display in the ostensibly sumptuous red room. I guess. But now I don’t understand why one’s children would be a part of the sale of those goods. Am I supposed to want her children? In what way?

John Ficara, Black Farmers in America. The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

While not an advertisement, John Ficara’s photograph of a family meal in his book Black Farmers in America makes sense. Arranged around their kitchen table, Belinda, Jonathan, Roger, and Kendra Lamar bow their heads in prayer over what appears to be a delicious meal of rolls, onion rings, fried fish (or maybe chicken), beans (maybe pinto) and a green salad. While their glasses are empty I imagine they will soon be filled with the “house wine” of Putnam County, Georgia, sweet tea–as it is the choice spirit of the South in general. In the background, I spy the silhouette of what I believe to be a delicious white cake with butter cream icing. Have mercy. The direction of my desires are clear.

Reminiscent of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “The Thankful Poor,” humility and reverence makes this an attractive scene.

“The Thankful Poor,” Tanner.

This family expresses gratitude for their bounty. I can almost hear them giving thanks for the hands that lovingly prepared the food that will nourish their bodies; for their family who have all been brought together in love. The bounty here is intelligible.

I prefer this grace to the ostensible glamour of the other scene. As there are boundaries here, I can imagine an adult conversation. Such an exchange is predicated on instructing the children, and this begins with the prayer of gratitude. Despite Kimora Lee Simmons’s status as a business “mogul,” the photograph showing her daughter spread across the dinner table does not suggest that she is adequately in control of her home. Again, I am still unclear about why I should want to buy what Baby Phat is selling.

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