Kitchen Table Memoirs

I’m not long back from a few days in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the wonderful communities that make up the church formally known as Spreydon, now Southwest. More of that later. On the way home I passed the transit hours (always too many) reading Nick Richardson’s Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers.

169621It’s a gathering of very personal reflections centred around life at the table, most commonly kitchen tables but including a few in restaurants and professional kitchens, even a community table shared deep in the Antarctic. It’s a gentle collection, undemanding and easy to read, sometimes funny, occasionally odd, and often moving. Each chapter provides a small insight into the highly personal worlds of domestic memory, family intimacy, regret, longing or the simple comfort that a table can provide. Contributors include comedians Denise Scott and Jean Kittson, writer Helen Garner, food historian Barbara Santich, chef Stefano de Piere and restaurant critic Gemima Cody.

A collection like this could easily slip into shallow sentimentality. The truth of table memories on public view can be lost in a romantic mist more to do with wishful longing than reality. For the most part, this collection avoids the trap. There’s enough reality here to make this a worthwhile read for anyone wanting to appreciate again just how central the kitchen table is to life, no matter how scarred and fragile it might have turned out to be.

Some words worth repeating:

The table was the centre of the family, touched hundreds of thousands of times. Touched and thumped and leant on and slumped on and very occasionally stood on at moments of joy and grief and relief and revelation. Whoopee has been made around it, and war. A normal bag of life’s emotions, and a family’s. … Everything happened at the table. The table was the tablet on which the stories were written in DNA and scuffs and stains. … the table wasn’t just an open book with footnotes and handwritten jottings and the impress and imprint of everyone whose lives had intersected at the table. It was a whole library. A leatherbound, handsewn, copperplate record, with mug rings and ink stains and spit on the corners and all. (Jean Kittson)

In the glorious clusterfuck of our existence, the table was our sanctuary from the greater insanity of the real world. Two square metres of civilisation. … That scored and battered stretch of wood was classroom, courtroom, parliament and temple. It was theatre and restaurant and sometimes zoo. A place where peace was found in the meditative cutting of carrots. Where we learnt the rewards of trusting the unknown by taking a chance on the liver. And where, over a thousand chicken pies, and many more teas, we’d argue the world down to a size and shape that made some sense. (Gemima Cody)

Nick Richardson ed., Kitchen Table Memoirs: Shared Stories from Australian Writers, ABC Books (HarperCollins): Sydney, 2013

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