Why Is It Hard for Us to Gather Around the Table?

If you look beyond the turkey, the striking thing about Thanksgiving is that everybody sits around a table together.

Sitting around a table together is a modern meme. It’s the force behind the communal table, which went viral with interior designers after some Belgian guy put one in his bakery in the 1980s. The single continuous table is the symbolic central act in the creation myth of Slow Food (to protest a McDonald’s opening in Rome, citizens dragged potluck dishes out of their apartments and onto one long table with mismatched chairs). The single table is an emblem of community, of shared destiny. Also basic humanity: We all have to eat, why not do it together?

We do not do it together. Not in America.

My aunt and uncle own a big, faux-Tuscan mansion in Sonoma, California. On most nights they eat prepared foods from the fancy grocery store in town, but they possess an enormous dining room with a huge and ornately carved table. It gets used one, maybe two times a year—possibly at Christmas, certainly at Thanksgiving.

But once we’re all seated there, no one is easy. We jump up and run to the baronial kitchen to grab things we want. We get out of our seats to take pictures. We follow the kids into the family room to set them up in front of So Random! Coming together around the table, it turns out, is as symbolic as the table itself.

As a young cook, I idolized Alice Waters. It was Waters who turned the notion of gathering around the table into a plausible culinary philosophy. It borrowed from the great European traditions of eating together, like bouillabaisse, served family-style from a single enormous platter of fish and a tureen of broth. The aesthetics of it are beautiful, but honestly? I always felt that Alice’s world was more about trying to will a sense of community, the way sitting around my aunt’s dining room table for Thanksgiving feels like an act of willing a sense of family connection.

Besides, it’s not how any of us actually live our lives the other 360-plus days of the year, when we grab meals out, fill up on bags of chips and then don’t feel like eating in the technical sense, or rustle something up out of leftovers.

Maybe the problem is one of scale. Sitting down with seven people on a holiday might feel contrived, but sitting down to eat with my husband never does. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that our most memorable Christmas dinner was the one we shared in a Savannah motel room, on takeout Chinese spread out on an end table we moved a lamp off of to create a place to eat. It was chilly out, the TV glowed, and we had the shared promise of a new city to explore, after we finished the fried rice and knuckle-like hunks of chicken with black beans. It felt like family.

Photo by Flickr member mastermaq under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.