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Words by Kareem Arthur; Illustration by Faria Tabassum
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For AA Gill, the most important invention in human history was not the wheel, or the plough, or the button you press that retracts the plug lead on your hoover, but the table. “Everything about our lives that’s worth saying, doing, having or knowing, we’ve learnt around tables” he said in a TED-ish talk a few years before his death. The statement is a typical Gill-ism, provocative, true in a sense, not so true when you think about it a bit further. Who is ‘we’ for instance? “A culture that does not have tables is not a culture you want to live in” he says further on, answering that question. But the central premise, that eating and drinking together, around a table or otherwise, is a solemn thing, worth saving, is correct.
Recently, I interviewed a restaurateur and we talked about the supposed ‘death of the restaurant’; he advocated for the communality of the restaurant over the atomised way we’ve eaten during the pandemic by citing a pre-table era, when we were all cave people. Those people who gathered round a fire, together, he said, were protected from what was outside of that fire. Those who did not come into that ring, to eat and drink, were killed off by sabre-tooth tigers, or whatever they had back then. The predisposition to sociability is therefore encoded in our genes ─ can a pandemic really kill that off? I think about the last decade and my social life, where the table has been at the heart of everything. My long table at work, where I have sat and drunk tea with everyone who became important in my life; my future partner, my future agent, Vaughn Tan. And the hundreds of tables over the last few years where I’ve eaten with new people, many of whom have quickly become the people I spend most of my time with, my second eyes, ears and stomachs. Ironically, the largest of those gatherings ─ a baker’s dozen of us demolishing a lamb sajji at Namak Mandi, did not include a table.
Today’s newsletter by Kareem Arthur is about the table, but not necessarily those tables. Over the last nine months, I have got to know my own table a lot better. If you follow me on Instagram you may have got to know it too; a meal-stained wooden slab propped up on two pillars, lined with the detritus of the day ─ a bar of Pump St dark chocolate, a candle, a porcelain fruit bowl containing a quince, some chestnuts, my chabu which soaks up all the overspill from my tea making. And unlike those days before March where I was out until late eating at restaurants, since then I have mainly sat at this table, eating simple meals, taking account of the day and looking ahead with someone I love. I still love restaurants and look forward to more big meals, even bigger lamb sajjis, but I’m a happier person spending more time at this table. I hope that in 2021, as Kareem says, we can invite more people in.
Table Talk, by Kareem Arthur
My dining table was the first piece of furniture that I bought for my new flat. A dark, oval drop leaf antique table made of oak, which I knew would fit perfectly underneath our living room bay windows as soon I saw it. I was in the early stages of pregnancy and I envisioned it being the centre of our home, a structure that would hold and bring us together as the years go by. This would be a place where we would sit to eat, and even if we didn’t see each other for a while, we would always gravitate back to that same space where our little family began.
I’ve always enjoyed eating food, but more than that I’ve always enjoyed eating food with people. My West African roots meant that food was at the epicentre of every occasion. The stories and energy that journeyed from Sierra Leone, that little country on the side arch of Africa, rippled through those rooms and set them alive with laughter, love and loud conversation. Through it, a small sense of home was accomplished even in this cold and unusual environment that many of my elders were still becoming accustomed to. For my Sierra Leonean grandmother, cousins and the rest of my elders who had chosen to come here to live, work or educate themselves, each party that took place served as a comfort which aided them to survive in this new world. Most occasions, if not all, brought with them long tables spread full of rice, fish balls, akara, beans, okra, hot pepper soup and plasas. So many dishes you could barely even see the tablecloth underneath.
Each gathering that I attended growing up was a reminder that I was part of a community – although I hadn’t been to Sierra Leone myself, that side of me was kept alive through the celebrations I attended, the food I ate and whom I ate with. The tables I have sat around to share food have varied from birthday tables to tables of heartache when loved ones have passed; tables of love and engagement; wedding and buffet tables, when two people bring together families who have never met before; the makeshift table of a seaside bus shelter my nan would pile Jollof rice, stew and chicken on during our annual trip to the British coast; sitting at an unfamiliar but warming new family dinner table when meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time; and my favourite table, the kitchen table at my mum’s house.
The dinner table isn’t simply a place for eating food; it is also where life happens. Sitting on my balcony while I was on holiday in Barcelona alone, I once watched a whole apartment block come out and eat together. I sat with a glass of juice and some bits I had picked up from a market. As I ate my food I peered over to the next house’s backyard to see a long table set and dishes brought down one by one to fill a white tablecloth. A space fit for about 20 people, different families, different strokes; but community all the same. Once they were all seated the passing of plates began, spoons and forks dug into deep dishes, with helping hands to serve the youngest and oldest residents who couldn’t quite reach all the goods. There were sounds of chatter and, although I was unable to make out the conversation from far away, I couldn’t miss the numerous high pitches of laughter and occasional changes in tone, followed by the clinking of plates, which all together made a recognisable late dinner sonata. Warm air, food and company flowed beautifully; then as the sunset came they wound down and reversed the way they came in, packing up and retreating into their homes. The meal was so vivid I could have been eating it with them.
It’s been experiences like these that led me to create The Healing Table; a space for women to come together, sit, share and eat; celebrating cooking processes and the feelings that we feel when we cook and eat together. When The Healing Table was born, I envisioned a safe space where women could come and talk openly about their experiences and mental health, using the dinner table as a focal point and the sharing of food as a way to connect us. While cooking can be a meditative and cathartic activity, requiring you to be present and concentrate wholly on what you are preparing, eating together is the simplest and most comfortable way for people to build connections. Good food is a language we all know.
The impact on mental health of being able to sit and eat around a table can be profound. In her 2015 TED talk, The Importance of Eating Together, Karen Hickson-Smith, a mentor from a local charity for homeless youths in Tunbridge Wells called Life & Soul, talks about a particular conversation she had with a young woman about her experience of eating around a table.
She says, “It’s the place where we share and eat and debate and create. It’s the space where young people find their minds and their voices.”
She speaks of how the dinner table is one of the first places we are able to feel heard. Having a table to sit around with the people we love is a privilege; the young people she works with, many of whom have come from broken homes and experienced various types of trauma, were not in many cases accustomed to the notion of the dining table being a place of joy. In some instances there wasn’t even a physical table. This was a curious similarity threaded through the lives of the young people she worked with, the idea that the TV was the centre of family life rather than the table.
That’s not to say that the TV is always a bad thing ─ like the table, it can bring us together and it is possible for us to gather to talk and eat with the TV on ,as some families do. It’s more the lack of communality and togetherness which seems to be something that we take for granted. I am no stranger to TV dinners myself, or standing up eating in the kitchen with my phone in hand, some days not even taking the time out to sit properly. We graze all day and snack late rather than giving ourselves the full meal and the sit down we deserve. It is not uncommon now for us to double up our dining tables as office spaces or extensions of our bookshelves, even in some cases abandoning them completely to become nothing more than storage space. We have gone from a culture that regularly eats together to one that would rather eat alone due to a feeling of not enough time; with more working hours and those hours not stopping once we get home.
Eating with company requires us to be present with no distractions. In a more atomised society, we are too quick to accept that people are okay. We leave people to it and keep ourselves to ourselves. Loneliness is something that we could all be struck with at some point in our lives; some people don’t have people and those who have the privilege of company don’t always see past their own bubbles. With our younger generation watching us, we have a responsibility to be even more conscious about carving out time, to make an effort to sit with each other and to thrive in spaces without screens.
When the first national lockdown was lifted I swiftly went round to see my favourite dinner table, that one in my mother’s kitchen, where my mum, my sister and I, joined by a very energetic one-year-old boy, usually catch up, eat food, talk things through and right the world’s wrongs. But while sitting there we all knew that life was different; an unspoken anxiety in the air from the uncertainty of what the future might hold for us all. From the way we work, socialise, live and exist on this earth, we do not know what things we will bring with us into the future, and what we will leave behind. As the current lockdown ends, and as some of us return to tables we haven’t seen since last Christmas, we will at least be able to eat with people once again. Perhaps in 2021, inviting someone to dinner wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Maybe we should all do more of it once we can.
Since I bought my dream dining table, I have begun to realise that the table doesn’t matter. We could be on the floor, on the couch or outside; the physical place isn’t important as long as we are with those we care about. When we share our food with people we discover common ground, rediscover love and gratitude, and form memories that we will cherish for years to come. When we eat food together we are reminded of past stories and are excited to share with the people we are sitting with. Maybe silence is also welcome, but when the company is good and you all have a mutual appreciation for the food you are eating, table or not, it’s more than enough.
Kareem Arthur is the creator of The Healing Table and also runs an online Cook Club every other Wednesday evening. It’s a space for women to connect, cook and eat together; share what they are cooking, how they cook and talk about all things food! More information and how to sign up can be found on her website www.kareemarthur.com. You can find Kareem on Instagram: @kareemlaurenarthur @the.healingtable
The illustration of the table is by Faria Tabassum. Both Kareem and Faria were paid for their work.