Sir, Respect Your Dinner,
Idolize it, enjoy it properly.
You will be many hours in a week,
many weeks in the year,
and many years in your life, happier if you do.
(William Makepeace Thackeray)
The Thackeray quote above is one I try to live my life by – it is included in my introduction to Food Culture. Over the past year, I have been reminded to return to it and re-examine whether my approach to setting a table is in keeping with the sentiment.
The annual Real Farming Conference, which takes place in the first week of January, provides a perfect platform for making food related resolutions. The topics debated are of the utmost importance to the future sustainability of farming in the UK. Against this worthy backdrop it is almost apologetically that I tell you that my food resolution for 2019 relates to how I set the table, but please indulge me!
The catalyst for this was not the Real Farming Conference, but a new responsibility I have taken on for looking after my two nephews after school until their parents get home from work. It includes giving them their evening meal. Interesting them to a wide variety of food and learning how it is produced is, unsurprisingly, my main focus. The bigger surprise to me was how important the table is in this endeavour. Being comfortable whilst you eat is important. Ideally, children should eat at a table of a size where their feet will touch the floor. I cannot provide this, but have observed carefully what else I can do, and it seems that involving them in setting the table helps. Initially, my husband and I ate after the children had been picked up but, and thankfully it is only once a week, we now eat with them at 5.30 pm. Rather than being presented with their meal already plated, they like to have dishes on the table from which to help themselves and frequently return for more. Yes, this makes more washing up, but it got me wondering why we save our best tableware for the occasional dinner party.
There has been quite a backlash against formal dining. Dinner Parties have been replaced by Kitchen Suppers. Please don’t mistake me, I am not an advocate of formality. I can’t bear to eat in the sort of establishment that won’t even allow me to pour my own wine. At the same time, I have become fed up with having to fold paper to stabilise my table, sit down gingerly on a chair that looks as though it might be about to collapse, and drink wine out of tumblers that would look more at home in a bathroom. Showing proper respect to the winemaker by serving wine in a glass that will enable the bouquet to be appreciated is surely a better approach to drinking alcohol than treating it as mere plonk?
I have been asked in the past whether my insistence on knowing how, and by whom, my food has been produced doesn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. Actually, I find quite the opposite. I am very fortunate that I have often either visited the farm or know something of the producer’s history for the vast majority of food that appears on my table. The feeling of connection is deeply satisfying. In a similar way I am rediscovering the pleasure to be found in remembering who gave us this of that particular plate or dish. It is not only children who find lighting a candle makes an occasion special.
Therefore, my food resolution this year is to extend my mindful approach to the presentation of the table, even if it is nothing more than ensuring the kitchen table is clear of other clutter and picking a few extra herbs as decoration rather than just for the pot. Life is short, but every meal is an occasion.