Do you eat at the table? Are you sharing meals with members of your household, friends, family, and other loved ones? If not, you need to start as a matter of urgency. During her 60-plus-minute discussion with Aussie social researcher and author Hugh Mackay, beloved author, TV host, journo and babe Nigella Lawson meditates about the role of food and table in society, the critical importance of connection, and about how food paves the path towards the same.
Both Lawson and Mackay are as charming and sharp AF, and, by virtue of their areas of interest, are perfect guides for a yarn about the concept of “table as ritual” in an increasingly secular society. That The School of Life is playing host to this forum is likewise perfect, given that UK author, philosopher and founder Alain de Botton is just as preoccupied with the role of the sacred in an otherwise profane world (check out his book Religion For Atheists for a deeper dive into the subject).
We learn that Lawson’s mum taught her to cook from a young age (Lawson describes it, wryly, as “child labour”), but attributes that time as lending her a feeling for cooking and food, as well as providing a place to belong.
It’s clear that Lawson’s whole approach to cooking is homely. In fact, her late husband encouraged her to write her first book How To Eat as a counterbalance to the prevailing cookbooks of the day, which at the time spruiked a technical approach to the kitchen that Lawson described as “unforgiving”. In Lawson’s view, cooking should be more about flavours, feeding the people you love, creating a sense of belonging, providing security, and kindness.
According to Lawson, without a table householders “are living distinct lives”. In that regard, her table preference is clear: “the more squished the better”. Recalling a Julia Child quote – “ tea without a cake is just a meeting” – Lawson also urges us not to go calling empty handed.In this light, food in a social context is elevated from fuel to an act of love, for others and yourself. Lawson also has a word of caution about the shift away from communal meals and eating the same thing as everyone else. “If you’re eating differently, you’re pools of individuals instead of a group,” Lawson reflects. “It’s a pity.”
During the latter part of the session, Mackay opens up for questions from the floor and I bolt for the mic. I’ve been preoccupied by Lawson’s suggestion that it’s critical to share repast. My question to her starts thus – “I’m vegan,” which alone provokes laughter from the predominantly foodie audience. Previously, I thought I was just being a nuisance (my husband is a dedicated meat-eater, so I almost always eat something different and we prep different meals, albeit side-by-side), but now I’m worried I’ve committed a bigger crime. Am I in danger of creating a dangerous rift? Lawson, responds with good humour and kindly reassures me that it’s more testament to the nature of the relationship that we still co-exist harmoniously and bids me to bat on. Thank god.
Tonight’s sold-out forum was always destined to be witty and informative. However, I wasn’t expecting to find it so darn uplifting and inspiring. I marched out with the best of intentions, but as with the best laid (tables) and plans of mice and men, we’ve eaten only once at the table since. It’s aspirational though. I’m planning on sewing some placemats to encourage a new habit.
Meg Crawford is a freelance journo and full-time rockabilly. She’s also a rock dog to her core and likes Ghostbusters a little bit too much. Follow her on @rockabillywriter, and the adventures of her beloved rescued buns @daisyandrik.