We'd gotten a little casual about where we ate, with most meals at the butcher block island, its wood top sometimes kale or beet stained from dinner prep, and usually still damp from a quick wipe-down. I was craving some formality. Not the kind that dictates which side of the plate the fork goes — I admit I still get turned around on that one — but the kind of formality that comes from giving something its own special place. The way a dancer has the stage, a photograph has a frame, or a tree has its earth. The formality I craved was to give the food bound for our bellies its own place of honor.
So we have a new dining table in our home. Nothing fancy: three pieces of old Douglas Fir fixed together as a top and steel gas pipe legs. When I imagined how our new table might look and feel, it felt so significant, and yet it turned out so simple; a blank canvas, ready for the spirit we'd spill and drip and smear into its fibers. Before it came, it was almost like imagining a baby still in the womb.
Our table came from Chicago where a wood-working woman named Erin True sources old growth industrial wood from dilapidated structures in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan and turns them into furniture. I originally found Erin on Etsy and quickly struck up a correspondence with her when I wrote in saying I thought most dining tables were too wide and could she help. So together we designed just the right size.
Sixty inches long and just 30-inches wide, we can fit eight people around cozily, ten even if we squish two on each end. Most dining tables are at least 36-inches and often up to 45-inches wide. Do you feel connected to the person sitting across from you at such a distance? I don't. We wanted cozy. Erin also made matching benches, so we can squeeze in tight and children can fall asleep across grown-ups' laps.
The wood is old-growth Douglas fir from a corn crib (a place used to dry and store corn after harvest) in Forrest, Illinois. Erin tells me Forrest is a very small town: one restaurant and one stoplight. She also tells me that Douglas fir will last forever. The table she built for her own home is from wood from the same corn crib. Erin says that sitting down to the table for me is one of few places and times where there are no distractions. I believe the same, so long as our phones are off.
A table is an altar to what we believe in. No matter where we buy our groceries or what kind of pans and appliances you use to cook them, what we put on our tables to feed ourselves is food we believe in. Our tables hold that nourishment. They hold not just the food we eat, but the warmth from the soft part of our forearms, maybe an elbow or two sometimes.
I remember the way my grandfather used to trace the figure eight on the table when he was explaining to me the way something works, and so his table held wisdom and stories from "the olden days." A table absorbs tears and makes a space for stories. People fall in love at tables, say prayers, hatch great plans, and solve the most difficult puzzles.
It feels so good to sit down at that table, significant in the thickness of wood but slight in its width on purpose so even a simple meal laid across it feels bountiful and so that people are closer to each other, warm and connected, formal only in the way table honors the meal, just as I wished. The meal above was mostly leftovers cobbled together for my daughter and her babysitter. She brought wilted flowers from her school's garden and we placed them in water for the table. There she shared lunch and stories from her day. One day she will remember this table. Maybe it will even be hers.
Why do you gather around your table? Is it to be nourished inside and out? Help me tell the stories of all our tables. What does your tabletop hold? How do you honor the food you believe in?
• Handmade dining tables, made to order from Urban Wood Goods. (Tell Erin I sent you!)
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan except Corn Crib from Flickr member mullica , licensed under Creative Commons)