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
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