Setting the table is always the best part. I love the anticipation, the excitement, the rush of giddy pleasure. Laying down the table cloth. Spreading out plates and cutlery. Filling glasses and folding napkins. I love the way everything seems to find their rightful place.
Meanwhile, dinner’s sizzling away and filling the house with spicy, heady aromas. Steam floats away from the rice pot, the salad only needs dressing, and lucky me; I have 10 minutes to spare before guests arrive.
The old me used to say, it’s just a meal, it isn’t anything special. Why bother with a tablecloth and go to all this trouble for something everyone will soon forget?
Yeah, I used to think that way.
But a meal isn’t just a meal. At the table, we bring more than food.
A meal is our childhood, our upbringing, our memories. The people we love and and the people we miss. The places we long for and the places we will one day visit. We bring a little of ourselves into each bowl of mashed potatoes, platter of pork belly, fried egg sandwich, buttermilk biscuit, and pot of perfectly cooked rice. Our food says, here I am. Taste a little piece of my life. This is where I come from. This is what I love. This is me.
A meal is a place of belonging and identity. They point to our spots around the kitchen table where we eat dinner night after night after night. They remind us of childhood friendships, that summer we spent in Washington DC, the years of living in a NYC five story walk-up, and Halmoni’s kitchen window facing a row of evergreen trees. As we pass dishes and butter bread, we talk about the big things of life and the small things, too. And in this way, we learn what it means to know and be known. We learn what it means to be human.
A meal is also tradition and family and generations of love gathered around a table. It’s the reason why Thanksgiving is the most travel crazy time of year and why dining alone on Christmas feels lonely, no matter where you are. It’s that dish you cook over and over again, just because it reminds you of someone you love. And the habits from childhood that somehow make it to our own table as adults. Like liturgy, a meal is a sacred ritual where rites of passage are performed: the special birthday, the wedding banquet, a 100th day celebration, the first holiday meal after a loved one has passed.
Everything we know and everything we love is wrapped in the food we cook and eat at the table.
That’s why I love the table. In this smallest of spaces, we carry out the sacraments of family, friendship, faith, and love. Here is the sacred place where we become ourselves, remember our past, and look forward to the future. The table is the place where we take one step closer to the divine.