I learned to socialize at my parent’s dinner table. And not just there but at the lunch table in my grade school cafeteria, the packed picnic tables at summer camp, the dining hall in my university, the local coffee shop where I learned the joys of candid, light hearted conversation with strangers, and at family gatherings hovered over a lavish and robust spread of treats. When I came to France eight years ago, I adapted to an entirely new rhythm and etiquette, from la bise to le fromage and all the bits of permissible conversation in between (weather: good; finances: untoward).
No matter the landscape, each experience was and remains tied together by two forces: the food on the table and the eaters with whom I argue, discuss, or laugh wildly over the course of a meal. That, and the people and sounds that construct an equally important experience when I dine alone — the hum of a coffee shop; the garrulous mealtime chatter from other diners; the sound of a chef fussing and toiling over a dish. It’s the unshakable spirit of a place, a language I understand.
And that language, girded with the power to appease and heal, buoys our spirits when we need it most.
As children, our ideas of the world and our abilities to conceptualize the importance of food in the bonds we forge or break may be inchoate but the edifying ritual is already crystallizing. And whether tastes are shared or disparate, everyone innately understands this ritual. We catch up with or make friends over coffee, flirt over cocktails, intellectualize over wine, sympathize and soothe over cake, and narrate our lives over boundless Thanksgiving feasts. The ‘table’ (or its auxiliary forms — the sofa, the park bench, the grassy knoll blessed with the best sunlight, the wood floor in a newly inhabited apartment) is thus emblematic as much for what graces it as for the roar of conversation that emerges from it. It is permanently stationed at the nexus of shared experience and personal growth.
My most potent memories, the happy ones anyway, and my most character-defining life lessons are inextricably linked to the sights, stories, sounds, disagreements and confessions to which the table has played host. If you excise the group and the experience from the food, does it really taste as good? Does it matter the same?
Do the scrambled eggs I ate as a kid rank ‘best’ because they truly outclassed all others or because they were whisked and served by my attentive, breakfast-loving father and symbolize a fragment of my life story? Does it feel special to celebrate Thanksgiving in Paris as an expat with a copious feast because knowing hands prepare all the right dishes, thereby recreating familiar traditions? Or is it because the voices that give thanks around me are those of new friends who deeply understand the complex mélange of joy and sacrifice inherent to choosing to live outside the norm?
The ineffable joy and almost euphoric high we feel from long meals and apéro hours with friends and family (or on the other end of the spectrum, immense frustration) attests to the very social role that food plays in all of our lives. I look at it as a character in my life — equally as important as the people I encounter but far less significant when uncoupled from experience and connection. It’s why I sometimes return to places that rank higher on ambience and mood than on unequivocally good taste.
As Adam Gopnik so rightly concluded in his book The Table Comes First, “Food matters for us as a daily symbol of the sacred”. In other words, it’s about so much more than what’s on the table.