brainfood: Table talk

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The Independent Culture
If I draw your attention to a "dormant" table, the chances are you'll think of one where a clerical or academic gentleman, unwisely asked his opinion on a hobbyhorse, holds forth while all snooze. In fact, it is nothing more than one fixed to the floor, and a fixed table was the privilege of the mighty - the rest of us being accommodated at portable or trestle tables set up according to who'd dropped in for a year or two.

It is my contention that of all the movables, the furniture of our lives, the table is the least regarded and the most important to civilisation. Yea, mightier than the bed, for procreation can, and does, take place almost anywhere, whereas civilised eating, as against mere grazing, requires a table. (The toilet and the bath, save in France, are immovables, part of the real estate, the fabric of a house.) This was, and is, always so: even in societies where eating is done in the reclining (say among Romans or the Bedouin) or the kneeling (as in Japan) position, for little, low, portable tables are always provided: lest the diners too closely resemble domestic animals.

If you think this contention is exaggeration, let me point out some of the sociology of the table and its contribution to a certain social democratisation. For instance, that lordly, dormant table. Poor nobleman! He was guaranteed his food (before others were fed) but he had no one to talk to save those on his left or right. At fixed tables, as at banquettes in modern restaurants, one sits with one's back to the wall: it greatly improves service but diminishes conversation, which is always better face to face. The Last Supper cannot have been a convivial occasion anyway, but even the marriage at Canae seems to have taken place with all on one side of the table; but then God was a rather formidable host. The monastic table follows this pattern: designed for silence and for listening to edifying texts, monks face no one.

Or take the various shapes of tables - oblong, square, round, oval, semi- circular - each of which indicates its own hierarchy and has a specific purpose. The immensely long, rectangular tables (eg those that went up in flames at Windsor) were originally designed to reflect, via proximity and distance, one's rank: rather as Kremlinologists, now alas! unemployed, would examine the ordo on the reviewing-stand during the Soviet May Day parade: how so-and-so had moved two padded shoulders nearer Leonid Ilyich. At the foot of the table, you were in danger of falling off into the abyss of non-recognition.

The high table at colleges and the banquet table at functions reflects some of the same spirit: up front is where all the action is; down among the lesser tables, God only knows who you'll be with and, worse, you can only imagine what Bill and Hillary are saying to each other. The oval table, while elegant, still retains the same question of hierarchy: it has a head and a foot and places of honour and, let us admit it, it offers contentious difficulties - how to seat the once-married, how to keep those known to dislike each other apart, how to cope with the left-handed and the chicken-winged, how to balance the genders.

The square table has its own defects: it is utterly symmetrical and creates natural visual and social confrontations. It is ideally suited for glowering and bitter argument: hence its adoption as the correct shape for bridge. Alas, the square table is the nec plus ultra of the average restaurant, for the good and simple reason that it is the most apt unit economically, being able to seat any number between one and four, being easy to shift, and using the minimum space, though the truth is that in terms of eating, it is the least viable of all. Bring on the basket of bread and rolls, the little butter dishes, the obligatory vase of flowers, the candle, the settings and today's ostentatious plates, not to speak of glasses of various sorts, bottles of wine and water, and there is no room left for the food which is why, to my regret, restaurant dishes come to you already on the plate rather than your being allowed to serve yourself.

In France, we have what I consider one of the two perfect tables, which I bought in Italy two decades ago. It is square, but large enough to fit two a side, and it has four flaps which you can open according to the number of guests; and being wide enough to start with, there is always room for the bowls and platters in the middle. It is compact enough, however, to allow general conversation rather than polite exchanges among neighbours. The table has only one defect: it stops at 12 (three, somewhat crowded, at a side) and we not infrequently have to cope with more than that. I have long ago commissioned Number Two son, a designer and architect, to come up with the perfect table for 18 but, whether out of indolence or lack of invention, the problem remains unsolved.

The other perfect table is, of course, the round table: elegant in and of itself, ideally-suited for the display of food and fine china, a perfect expression of gastronomical and social equality, with plenty of room in the middle and comfortable spacing all around, each place being readily accessible to waiter or host, it is ideal for exchanges of all kinds. Unfortunately, it also takes more space than any other kind of table and is disappearing in public eating-places (exception made of Chinese "family" restaurants) and you find it now only in space-wasting hotels and old-fashioned private clubs.

Of course, the table itself is not so important as the food or the company, but I urge restaurants, designers and those of you who are setting up house to consider your choice of table: it says more about you than you might think

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