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In praise of the round dining table.
Lockdown made me nostalgic for dinners with friends and travel. The memory of a meal with friends in a garden or overlooking an ancient landscape doubles the strength of my longing. My most memorable meals consisted of dishes of tasty food shared with a group of friends, all drinking wine in sunshine filtered through grapevines or bougainvillea overhead, on a patio or lawn, in England, Italy or Greece. I savor memories of gently raucous conversation, someone breaking into song, everyone a little tipsy only to the point where they would doze off after an hour. Usually, a white tablecloth, bread or bread crumbs scattered directly on the surface of the cloth, a couple of red wine stains, and maybe some flowers are the only decorations needed.
How festive the occasion felt depended on the number of friends at the table. A table that accommodated eight or ten friends, with at least three to a side, tended to lift everyone’s mood as soon as people took their seat. The mood at an outdoor table seating two on each side and one at either end was usually more subdued but still convivial. Four diners at a table under an umbrella on a patio often feels utilitarian. What interests me now is that the high spirits, chatter, and laughter at those lunches occurred in spite of and not because of the shape of the table.
The tables of the lunches and dinners I’ve attended in Europe over the years are very nearly always rectangular, a shape not conducive to conversation. Long before I started losing my hearing about a decade ago, I developed a dislike of rectangular tables. Such a table, it seemed to me, promoted the atomization of what should have been a communal exchange. Private conversations spring up when one end of the table can’t hear what the people at the other end are saying. Rectangular tables allow too easily a sense of alienation or exclusion to develop. A long row of seats along one table edge blocks the sight lines of those sitting side by side. People rock backwards and forwards to see or hear what is being said one or two seats aways. The only common focus possible in a linear arrangement must be imposed.
Everyone expects a meal with a group of friends to take place over several acts. In Act One, everyone hails the cook and host, the host explains the meal, and one or two of the most exuberant guests makes a pronouncement or comments on the occasion. Then people begin to eat. Act Two brings people’s attention to their plates. They may look across the table or bend forward to peer down the line, but instead they end up blocking the view of someone else. The conversation grows increasingly local when the noise level goes up. At formal dinners in the past and probably still at fancy banquets, diners are expected to engage with one’s neighbor on the right and then on the left. If the table is narrow enough, conversing across the table may be possible if a bit awkward. In Act Three, as friends finish their food, they shift theirs chairs away from the table and cross or extend their legs as they wait for dessert, fruit, cheese, and coffee. Now is the opportunity for rogue conversations. One friend may lean back in order to engage with a friend on the other side of her or his neighbor. Someone may get up and go sit with someone at another end of the table. At the table’s corner a conversation may ensue that includes more than two. The dénouement of an afternoon lunch on a patio comes in Act Four, the last phase, when people wander off in search of a sofa or lawn for a nap or sit at the table pouring more wine.
As pleasant as such long and leisurely lunches sound — and, no doubt, unless you have some polemical or rebarbative guests, they usually are very pleasant — I prefer more the ebb and flow that a round table affords. A group of six to ten people at a circular table have one another as a common focus. We are each in the sight line of the others. A round table facilitates the reception of sound in contrast to the usual predicament arising at least once at a meal on a rectangular table — “what did she say?” Conversation in the round includes the whole. It maintains a sense of communion longer than at a rectangular table.
I used to have a rectangular table when I owned a house. I couldn’t see how to make a round table fit in the space I had. Then, about seven years ago, I moved to a condominium with a long living area but no separate dining room. Pretty quickly, I figured out the space would easily hold a seventy-inch round table, which seats seven, eight guests at a pinch. Once the table was in place, it fulfilled my expectations. More than that, I quickly recognized other advantages.
The soft politics of a round table were a revelation that emerged organically from the dinners I offered my friends. A round table, I now saw, erodes the deeply-entrenched custom of the male host at the head of the table. And the vestiges of the lord at his table are only a few steps away from the boy-girl-boy-girl schema of table seating that does no table credit. Occasionally, heteronormativity can be a punch to the gut of a single person, regardless of sexual orientation, who is left off the guest list of a traditional coupled dinner party. An old friend of mine observed to me after replacing his traditional rectangular dining table with a round one that “our meals are now much more ecumenical.” I take him to mean that family members and guests are unified in the common purpose of enjoying a meal together without respect to rank. Without getting too pious about it, I enjoy meals with friends at a round table more than I do at a rectangular one because I see that we are all eating and drinking in enjoyment (or, perhaps even more importantly, when we’re not). I enjoy seeing my friends’ faces and hearing what they say. Having a round dining table has taught me that the past doesn’t always have to eat with us.