13 February, 2020
THE MEANING OF A TABLE
Today the owner of my studio, whom I shall call W, brought me a table. He is the owner, and is married to M. As I wrote previously, W moved here from Cape Town. The table means a lot to me. For 10 years I was unable to invite friends to dinner, something I had done regularly before. To invite friends to dinner had become, in a way, a destination, or a longing, if you will.
Where does your love of cooking come from? my friends would ask.
I did not know how to answer.
But I thought about it and over the years I have begun to formulate an answer. A dinner with friends is about more than just food. In ancient times, this was the time, and the only time, the family could get together, around the dinner table, however primitive it might be, this dinner table.
I come from a (badly) broken family. The only time my mother went to trouble cooking, was over Christmas, and then it was one of the rare occasions that my brother was present, and so it was just the three of us and this made my mother feel sentimental and she would say, “How nice to have the family together.”
This was farcical. I detested my brother. His conviviality was fake. He resented life, me, my mother, everything. I resented the fact that my mother could not see this was all fake, it was a fake occasion, everything about it was fake and dripping with sentimentality. “Oh, to have the family together again.”
When I returned from Europe after an absence of a year, my mother was so overcome with emotion that in her bewilderment, she brought us toast on a tray without plates. There was an important guest present. My brother shouted at her. I came to her rescue, defending her, taking the tray back to the kitchen to get the small plates. I felt so very sorry for her. I thought I understood. My mother’s love was evident in her bungling the presentation of toast, which she brought to her son, her long lost son, on a tray instead of on small plates.
The only dish she made that I could remember, was tripe. When I was in the navy, doing my compulsory military service, I would write to her about her tripe and how I missed it.
One day, I asked her why she did not take more trouble cooking. She replied, “Because your father killed my soul.”
So I lacked the – and here I must use the word “Gemeensaamheid”. It means ‘togetherness’.
Which brings me back to the question: Why do you love cooking. I suspect I love cooking because I am searching for ‘gemeensaamheid’. I am trying to fill a void. I am trying to compensate for a bewildering emptiness I experience all through my childhood and put in simple terms, being together with my family around the dinner table in some authentic way, not at Christmas time with its balloons and its streamers, but on a regular basis.
I have downloaded and saved thousands of recipes over the years. It saddens me to think I will not live long enough to try them out.
I am an avid follower of food writing. Years ago I read an article in the New Yorker by Jason Epstein called ‘This side of Paradiso”. It was about his stay, with friends, in Tuscany, in a villa. The writer describes, how going down to the village markets, he would enter an almost trancelike state as he chose his hams for the evening meal from the local butcher or select cheese from the cheese monger.
In this trancelike state, he was still able to detect beauty, because, in some way, you could say love of beauty is not indistinct from the love of food. “A few minutes later, under the flutist’s spell, I walked back into the square to rejoin my friends, and there I glimpsed what Forster might have seen when he conceived his novel’s hero. Reclining on a balustrade, his back against a pillar, his head turned to one side, a book unread in his hand, and his expression distracted or irritable, was a young man of such forbidding beauty that hê dispelled any inclination to possess it, even if one were so inclined.”
I thought about this again when, attending a dinner with a Canadian arts professor, who has achieved some renown in his circle as griller of note. “Cooking is therapeutic to me.” I had observed him over the Weber, with us but not really with us; instead he was separate, in his own world. His ‘therapy session’ would start early on, as he selected his rib-eye steaks from the butcher. He is a convivial person, cheerful even, but it is in his cooking that his separateness betrays him, reveals a shadow, and reveals, too, a certain longing, a longing which is not readily satisfied because it lies buried deep within him. I turned to the BBC news and saw this headline: “I lost my son in a car accident – so now I direct traffic.” I wonder how often we compensate in some way for a wound, or an emptiness.
So here I am in Darling.
Earlier today, W arrived with a table. He apologized, saying it was not a great table. For me it was. An empty table as yet, but it holds so much promise of more. It has such enormous potential.
© Johan Liebenberg