“So why can’t you stay
Just long enough to explain?”
– When It Rains, Paramore
There are many things that make a house a home — the irresistible smell of a mother’s cooking; the warmth of one’s quilt in the early hours of the morning; the comforting sight of a loved one sleeping contentedly on the sofa in front of the softly murmuring TV… But nothing quite makes a house a home as sitting together at the same table around a warm home-cooked meal, in the company of absolutely wonderful people, with the sound of animated voices and laughter filling the atmosphere.
This act of communal consumption accompanied by engaging conversations makes dining together always a recipe for success when it comes to bonding with strangers, friends, family, or even fiends. Anthropologists have extensively studied the consumption and exchange of food, both of which establish and sustain extraordinary social and familial bonds between individuals. For Malays, eating alone in the presence of other people is considered especially rude and inconsiderate. If one were caught in such a situation — for example, when a guest happens to arrive just as one is about to dig in — the proper code of conduct is to invite the guest to partake in the feast by saying, “Jemput makan!” (a phrase meaning, “Come eat with us!”). The guest may politely decline, knowing that his unannounced arrival could mean the host might not have prepared extra portions for possible guests. But some hosts might genuinely want to share the meal and would not take no for an answer, in which case it would be rude to profusely refuse the offering. One may not be expected to finish an entire meal, but getting a “taste” (“Rasa sikit saja”) of what is being offered as a symbolic gesture of acceptance and appreciation would more than suffice.
I was brought up in a family where everyone would have their meal at the dining table at the same time. There is no such thing as sneaking away to eat dinner in front of the TV or missing breakfast during the weekend because we would rather sleep in. My father did not tolerate this. Even if my father were to come home late from the office, us kids would still have to eat dinner after he’d returned home, half-nodding over our plate from sleepiness. In a way it made us appreciate the presence of every single individual at the dining table, but in all honesty, food would also be absolutely tasteless when consumed in the company of empty chairs.
I was also brought up watching my parents build lasting friendships through inviting their friends of every single skin color, nationality, and ethnic background over for a nice home-cooked Malay meal. This was especially the case when we were living in Accra, Conakry, and Dhaka. It was actually a tremendous pleasure hosting these guests, because many were sensible enough to not simply come empty-handed. As a child and an adolescent I also benefited greatly from mixing with my father’s colleagues, who were often inspiring, motivating, good-humored, and well-traveled individuals in their own right.
When I started living on my own as a student in Australia, I found myself doing the exact same thing my parents did — I would invite friends over for lunch, serving as the main course something I’d whipped up in the span of an hour (while apologizing profusely for my severe lack of culinary skills, of course), and Magnum ice creams for dessert, bought at the nearby IGA or Woolies on sale. Often these meals would be followed by a horror movie or a Scrabble match, and remarkably interesting conversations. I found that my friends couldn’t care less about the taste of the food, but showered me with heartfelt appreciation for the efforts I’d made to host them. Sometimes when my friends and I reminisced over our time in Australia together, I was surprised that it is these meals and Scrabble matches and conversations that they remember me for the most.
In my current house in Cambridge, my wonderful landlady and I have bonded very well in the kitchen over food and interesting talk. We would often cook our meals separately due to my special dietary requirements, but this certainly did not prevent us from enjoying our different meals together at the same table in the bright conservatory adjacent to the kitchen. This is, in fact, usually the highlight of my day. In a way there is tremendous comfort to be found in exchanging the banalities or the occasional unusual details of every day life, and we have also begun to keep tabs on what our days generally look like. In my landlady I have found a faithful listener, which is also what I have also attempted to offer her, and she always seems keen to meet the many different friends I bring home and to listen to whatever I had to say about my research. I think my experience would have been slightly different if I were to have moved in with other students my age. As our lives intermingle, I find that I am learning more and more about art, parenting, psychology and psychoanalysis, and British society in general, all of which keep me absolutely interested in knowing more about this temporary home of mine.
One should therefore never underestimate the transformative force of the dining table and the power of reciprocity; when food is given and taken, a bond begins to form which could bring unsuspecting people closer together in ways they never thought would be possible. Sometimes it is not about the food being shared per se, but it is as if the plate offers more than just the substance for our subsistence, but also the opportunity for intellectual, verbal, and cultural exchanges to take place between these intrigued minds and searching souls seated around the same table.
This particular photo of what appears to be a very ordinary dining table was taken in a replica of a 19th-century Swedish home we visited in Skansen, Stockholm. Not entirely sure what 19th-century Swedish families would be discussing at the dinner table, but judging from the fact that Sweden is indeed one of the happiest countries on the planet today, I’m guessing they certainly did not dwell too much on their horrendous summertime weather.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “(Extra)ordinary.”