I wake up thinking about dinner. If I haven’t already planned it days (or in the case of holidays, weeks) in advance, early morning is reserved for consideration of the evening meal. Occasionally, it’s a big deal, though often I’m just thinking about where to grab a baguette that will happily pair with the leftover Manchego and quince paste in the fridge. But even the simplest meal appeals to me because it’s the designated, almost ritualistic, memorial for the day. It’s where we reflect, celebrate, seek advice, offer compassion, and muster the strength to do it all over again tomorrow. For this small wedge of time, we slow down – a feat that seems impossible at any other point in the day.
This is certainly tied to childhood: dinner was the only time in the daily routine that our family was all together and, even if smartphones had been around, there’s no chance our mother would have allowed them at the table. Dinner was always an exercise in listening but just as much a primer in how to tell a story. There were always three captive audience members who would lend you an ear – as long as the story was entertaining, informative, or legitimately funny. (The ultimate victory was to get our dad to laugh as he was and is always in charge of the narrative.)
It's the main reason that both that Ellen and I love to set a table: all of the decoration is a precursor and a celebration of the conversation to come. And the older we get, the more we embrace a setting that unapologetically mixes patterns. After all, when you hit fifty (as we have), you’re also an amalgam of textures, patterns, and stories that have developed in a somewhat unplanned fashion. To be honest, I’m still obsessed with a stark white dinner plate, a simple frame for food of any hue. But the tablecloths, napkins, placemats, dessert plates, and glasses have become increasingly bold over the years. There’s no reason not to decorate it like a Christmas tree. After all, you put in long hours and dinner demands a good time. So give into the evening: share a story; try to make someone laugh; explain where you found that recipe; paint an unabashed ode to color on your table. That’s what it’s there for. That’s what we live for.