A Return to the Table

I’ve been thinking a lot about tables lately. Not so much the physical object, with its four legs and flat wooden surface, but what it symbolizes, and why it means so much to me. My pastor asked me to talk about the connection between spirituality and the table at church on Sunday, which really got me thinking. What is it about the table that I find both captivating and comforting? Why does it matter whether we eat around a table or in front of a TV or computer? What does it mean to “live life around the table,” as I advocate on this blog?

When I see a beautifully set table, with flowers and candles and wine glasses–all dressed up like a bride on her wedding day–my heart soars. The image is so full of hope and expectancy, of community and conversation to come. Or when I see a table post-party, covered with the remnants of a festive evening–stained napkins, bread crumbs, empty wine bottles, and piles of dirty plates–I get nostalgic. I think about the stories told, the laughter shared, and the friendships made. I wish I could relive the evening all over again. But my favorite tables are the old ones, unadorned, proudly wearing their lines and cracks and dents. Those are the ones that intrigue me the most. I think about what they would say if they could speak. They’d tell tall tales, of fabulous dinner parties, of toasts and tears, of simple family suppers, of love affairs, of shared joys and heartaches. They know that tables aren’t just for eating.

My life has always revolved around the table. I grew up eating nearly every meal around the yellow table. Birthdays and holidays were celebrated, and we spent hours upon hours talking about life, telling stories and laughing (a lot). My family was always there, but inevitably a few friends or relatives would join. And when it wasn’t being used for a meal, the table was covered with art projects, games, homework, or books. It was the center of our home – a place where we were known and loved, where ideas were birthed, and where we learned what life was all about.

Since my mom passed the yellow table on to me, I’ve tried to carry on the tradition of shared meals and conversation. In my various apartments in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and NYC, I’ve thrown hundreds of dinner parties, small and large. Some consisted of takeout sushi and bottles of bubbly, some might be a simple roast chicken, while others were multi-course affairs with pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres. In Nashville, friends often brought their instruments and played music afterwards (those nights were my favorites). We had everything from guitars to banjos to fiddles, and even a didgeridoo.

Regardless, there is something magical that happens when you gather a group of people around a table to share a meal. They can be old friends or they can be strangers, but a transformation occurs. Phones are (hopefully!) stowed away, and people actually start looking at each other. I mean really seeing each other in a way that rarely happens in our overly-distracted lives. They slow down enough to really listen. They enjoy eating for the sake of eating. Ideas are swapped and imaginations inspired. I have seen it time and time again – as stories are told and wine is sipped, layers begin to peel away. Guards go down and community is formed. It’s something I will never tire of seeing.

At the end of the day, we all want to be known. We want to connect, to tell our story and have others listen. We want be accepted for who we are, and to have a safe place to do that. The table, for me, has always been that place. Cooking is deeply important to me, but it’s the community I crave the most. I will happily throw together a simple pot of soup for an impromptu dinner party if it gets people around the table. Especially in a busy city like NYC, a homemade meal is often the best gift you can give. I’m convinced that there’s nothing like a dinner party to propel tomorrow’s ideas, tonight’s relationships, and maybe even inspire a little bit of music. Now that’s something I will happily raise a glass to.

The beautiful photography in this post was done by Eric Ryan Anderson. Photos were taken at Brandon’s and my wedding on September 12, 2010 in NYC.

  • Mom Carl

    Awww I love you honey. This brought tears to my eyes. What an amazing writer/chef you are. Very proud of you!

  • Aunt Bev

    How lucky is this family to have u as part of it now. U R everything I ever dreamed of being and more when I was young. I longed for dinner parties, but the opportunity never arose……
    I and Jan have always been foodies..and love that you are as well, on a much d to call u my niece, and this article tells what a warm intelligent, caring, sharing person you are.

  • http://Facebook Jann Wabick

    Like you, I have always found that the table was where our family could destress, and chat and discuss fun or weighty issues. I love to cook and the layers of love (different courses, and offerings) sometimes made our table groan, but, always love. Thanks for sharing this lovely article with another person who loves tables. Jann

  • Maria

    Beautiful, Anna!

  • Megan H.

    What a lovely post Anna. I always enjoy your writing and your delicious recipes!

  • Christina Ware

    Beautiful post Anna, possibly your best yet! Thanks for sharing your heart and making all of us appreciate sitting around the table, it truly is one of the best things in the world.

  • annabwatson

    Thank you everyone for your amazingly sweet comments!! This blesses me to see that the image of the table strikes such a chord. I am so grateful I’ve been able to spend so much of my life around a table with wonderful people :)

  • Rachel Carter

    Beautifully written, Anna! I’m so thankful to have shared meals at your table. Cheers to many more to come!

  • Pingback: Anna Watson Carl: Why Weeknight Meals Matter (Plus 5 Delicious Recipes) | USA Press

My name is Anna Watson Carl. In a word, I love food, I love France, and I love throwing dinner parties. Over the years, I've worked as a personal chef, taught cooking classes, edited cookbooks, written for magazines, tested and styled recipes, and traveled whenever opportunity has arisen. But at heart, there's nothing I love more than sharing a meal with friends around the yellow table.

For me, cooking has always been a way of life. As a (mildly precocious) ten-year old, I planned and prepared a four-course Valentine's dinner for my parents, birthing a lifelong passion for dinner parties. That was just the beginning. I've been cooking ever since, whipping up souffles at a chateau in Burgundy, searing filet mignon for a wealthy client's dog (bizarre, but true), butchering ducks for confit de canard in Paris, baking the night shift in Nashville, and bathing the floor of my NYC apartment in turkey brine...the story continues.


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