Move­able feasts

With fewer of us gath­er­ing for sit-down meals, Harry Wal­lop laments the loss of the din­ing ta­ble and the seem­ingly in­ex­orable rise of eat­ing off our laps in front of the TV

Country Life Every Week - - Interior Design - Harry Wal­lop

THE din­ing ta­ble is an ob­ject as solid as it is Bri­tish, an item of fur­ni­ture that’s been cen­tral to fam­ily life since our evening en­ter­tain­ment con­sisted of some­thing on the lute rather than Down­ton Abbey. After a fire­place, a din­ing ta­ble is what makes a house a home, but—and you’d bet­ter hold on to your demi­tasses—the din­ing ta­ble is at risk of dy­ing out.

A re­cent sur­vey has found that 78% of Bri­tish peo­ple don’t sit down to a meal at a ta­ble ev­ery day. We’re all too busy grab­bing a por­ridge pot from Pret a Manger for our break­fast, munch­ing a sand­wich at our desk for lunch and then eat­ing off our laps in the evening to pick up a knife and fork. The sur­vey, con­ducted for Gio­vanni Rana, a pasta maker, found that 23 meals a month are now eaten from the sofa. It comes hot on the heels of an­other by Ikea, which found that, al­though 72% of adults said their par­ents would en­sure a sit­down fam­ily meal took place at least once a week, only 50% do the same to­day.

It is hard to pin down the ex­act mo­ment when the din­ing ta­ble be­came as passé as a fax ma­chine, but it was at some point be­tween Jamie Oliver im­plor­ing us to ‘tear and share’ and David Cameron chillax­ing with the Chip­ping Nor­ton set over a ‘kitchen sup­per’.

As a cul­ture, we ap­pear to have em­braced slobby bowls of noo­dles eaten in front of the tele­vi­sion or av­o­cado on toast eaten while perched on a bar stool—an ob­ject that pur­ports to be a piece of fur­ni­ture, but is, in fact, an in­stru­ment of mod­ern tor­ture. John Lewis, the depart­ment store and barom­e­ter of mid­dle­class taste, says sales of those high bar ta­bles are up 54% on last year. The bar stool/ta­ble makes ev­ery meal as en­joy­able as a pasty snatched at Eus­ton while you wait for your plat­form to be called.

It’s all so dif­fer­ent from a gen­er­a­tion ago. I grew up in the 1970s in a house­hold that had a sep­a­rate din­ing room—which hosted din­ner par­ties con­sist­ing of osso buco and Grand Marnier souf­flés (the height of so­phis­ti­ca­tion)—from where the ladies with­drew, leav­ing the gentle­men to smoke cigars and chunter about James Cal­laghan.

Younger readers may find this hard to be­lieve, but the din­ing-room ta­ble has an im­por­tant place in our his­tory and it would be a mi­nor tragedy if it was to go the way of the cham­ber pot or the Douro chair and be­come a cu­rio only to be found in more ec­cen­tric homes.

‘As a cul­ture, we have em­braced slobby bowls of noo­dles in front of the tele­vi­sion

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Han­nah Flem­ing, a cu­ra­tor at the Gef­frye Mu­seum, which chron­i­cles Bri­tain’s in­te­ri­ors, you can track the his­tory of Bri­tain’s ‘mid­dling sorts’ through the chang­ing fortunes of the din­ing ta­ble. Pre-civil War, the ta­ble is a mas­sive oak af­fair, found in the hall of a home, an ob­ject that un­der­lines the strict hi­er­ar­chy of a house­hold, where only the master sat on a chair; the rest, all the way down to ap­pren­tices, sat on stools and ate to­gether. After the Stu­arts, the ta­ble is a more el­e­gant, gate-legged af­fair and found in a sep­a­rate room. The din­ing room is a sanc­tu­ary for fam­ily and guests, not at­ten­dant hang­ers-on.

And there the din­ing ta­ble re­mained—for ev­ery­one from the Dukes of Bedford with their Canalet­tos all the way down to fam­i­lies in their two-up, two-downs and a front par­lour—up un­til the 1950s.

It’s only after the Sec­ond World War that open-plan liv­ing started to creep in, not as a Scandi style state­ment, but a re­ac­tion to a short­age of space. New builds of the 1950s and 1960s don’t have enough room for a sep­a­rate din­ing room. ‘It’s also tied up with the idea of re­ject­ing pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions’ for­mal so­cial and do­mes­tic habits,’ points out Miss Flem­ing. ‘And, of course, the mid­dle classes can no longer af­ford do­mes­tic ser­vants. It makes more sense for the kitchen to be nearer the main din­ing space.’

Al­though mov­ing a din­ing ta­ble out of a sep­a­rate, oak-pan­elled room stained with cigar smoke and fine liv­ing is not in it­self a rea­son for civil­i­sa­tion to col­lapse, it’s when it’s re­placed by a kitchen is­land with bar stools that the rot sets in. This ar­range­ment is spread­ing like a rash across the coun­try be­cause is­lands look great on tele­vi­sion cook­ing shows, en­sur­ing the chef doesn’t have their back to cam­era. In a fam­ily’s do­mes­tic space, how­ever, they are in­vari­ably un­com­fort­able and anti-so­cial, with all the fam­ily sat in a line and no one ever look­ing at each other.

Miss Flem­ing says we shouldn’t fret—mod­ern fam­ily life is just adapt­ing to a short­age of space and time, but a stand needs to be made. Meals are the glue that holds a fam­ily to­gether. Nap­kins, a can­de­labra or cruet set aren’t nec­es­sary, but a meal shared to­gether re­ally is. And how much bet­ter if it’s eaten at a ta­ble.

Some­where back in time: In an in­creas­ingly busy and screen-based so­ci­ety, it’s im­por­tant that we cel­e­brate the unity that the din­ing ta­ble brings

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