My father is a pastor. I grew up the son of a preacher man. My parents relocated from Texas to California so he could start a new church in 1989. I was two. They left a lot of people they loved behind, but they took their southern hospitality with them so privacy wasn’t something I experienced much of as a kid. My family hosted gatherings, meetings, lunches and dinners in our living room and continued to do so as the church grew from twelve people to over 1,100 at one point.
Every Sunday after church, without fail, my parents would (and still do) walk around and invite people over to our house for a home cooked meal. People they knew well, people they didn’t know at all. They invited everybody.
It wasn’t uncommon to have between 25 and 30 people crammed into our little house on Sunday afternoons, overflowing from the living room to the kitchen to the back patio and pool. With standing room only, my dad would stand around the grill and tell stories, while mom prepped food in the kitchen and chatted up a storm as she refilled people’s tea.
The food was always simple and southern, with just a hint of Californian influence. Burgers, chicken, or brisket fresh off the BBQ. Mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, a casserole of some kind. Sometimes dad would make a trip to the local Mexican market to pick up carne asada to make tacos, and mom would make refried beans, rice, and guacamole to serve with chips and salsa.
Frequently, people who had advance notice of the meal (which wasn’t often) would bring something of their own, turning our house into a smorgasbord of sorts where it was possible to sample anything from my dad’s 48-hour smoked brisket (don’t worry, we’ll get that recipe up on Life & Thyme soon), to someone’s grandma’s famous potato salad recipe, to the 60-year married Japanese couple Don and Jean Matsuda’s homemade sushi. The sushi was the highest of delicacies, as far as I was concerned. Fish was usually only prepared in our home if it was deep fried.
On Sundays, since church had just gotten out, it wasn’t uncommon for church business to be discussed around the table. My dad would intentionally invite people over that he knew had something they wanted to talk to him about, whether they knew he knew or not.
The table became a place to work things out.
It was a concert venue, as kids scratched out songs they didn’t know on new guitars they didn’t know how to play. Or as local singer/songwriters played new songs they’d written on my parent’s back porch. I played in a few bands during my teenage years, and even we would occasionally give concerts in the garage to people who were lucky enough to be there. (I use the words “concert” and “lucky” quite loosely here.)
The table was a place where families learned from each other, and found opportunities to help and serve one another. Whether it was a family in need of a car, an extra $20 a week for groceries, or a movie recommendation for the evening, needs were discussed and needs were met.
Now that I’m married, my wife and I are carrying this tradition on in our own home as we host friends, coworkers, and acquaintances for meals around our table.
Our apartment is small and our table only seats four, so the “table” usually involves sitting cross-legged on the floor or standing and setting your plate on the kitchen counter (which is a good place to be if you’re keen for seconds or thirds or fourths). We drink wine or beer instead of sweet tea and our food is a bit more experimental, as my wife likes to dabble in French, Italian, and Indian cuisines, and we don’t eat much that’s fried.
But the feeling is the same as we sit back and watch our friends become friends with each other, hatch ideas and make plans. We’ve heard new songs, listened to poetry, viewed new artwork and laughed at stupid cat videos on Apple TV. We’ve seen people get angry at one another, we’ve seen people cry as they open up about the loss of a friend, and we’ve seen people who can barely contain their joy as they tell us they’re going to have a baby.
See, “the table” and “the meal” are symbolic.
Food is a necessary component of life, and so is honest, communal interaction among people. So when you open up your home and cook a meal for someone, you’re not just serving them some food. You’re giving yourself an opportunity to love them. You’re giving them an opportunity to connect with other people. You’re giving them an opportunity to tell their story, to tell people about their needs, and you’re giving yourself the opportunity to meet those needs.
Life happens around the table, if you’ll let it.