An American institution is under attack. It is the kitchen table.
Everybody knows that most of the world's great ideas -- the theory of light, the theory of making potato salad without mayonnaise, the theory of who will win the pennant -- take shape during conversations around the kitchen table.
Yet whenever I visit a modern kitchen and look around for place to sit down and chew the fat, I don't find a table.
What I find is a breakfast bar, or a kitchen "island" surrounded by stools. While it is possible to position yourself on such perches, they don't encourage serious sitting.
Instead they seemed to be designed for "quick bites," wherein people hurry in, wolf down some fiber-filled muffins then sprint out into the fast lane.
Perched at a breakfast bar, there is little inclination to smell the coffee, to count the raisins in the raisin bran, to talk.
In contrast, a kitchen table with its easy-to-plop-in chairs, and vast flat table surface, invites you to spread out and linger. And lingering is the essence of kitchen life. Without it, a kitchen is nothing more than a work station.
Granted these sleek bars and islands are probably more efficient ways of dispensing food.
But I feel the inefficiency of the kitchen table, the way it lumps many household functions together, is one of its most appealing aspects.
The other evening, for instance, at our house, one kid was sitting at the kitchen table eating one of his 700 daily servings of frozen waffles, another was sitting there doing his geography homework, and I was sitting there reading the newspaper. The homework worker started reciting the names of the continents. "Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Australia, Antarctica." Without getting up from the table, I told him he had forgotten Greenland.
Greenland, he said, is not a continent. This was a serious challenge to my parental authority. So serious that I got up from the kitchen table and fetched an atlas.
The kid turned out to be right, Greenland is a big green country, but is not a continent. Moreover, what they used to call Australia now includes New Zealand and is referred to as Oceania. To prevent any further erosion of parental authority, I made sure the atlas remained next to me at the kitchen table.
Lots of things remain on our kitchen table. The goldfish bowl, magazines, notes from teachers, and stacks and stacks of newspapers. It is our ready reference center, a place to find the answer to questions ranging from, "Are the Simpsons on tonight?" to "Why are these people protesting in the Philippines?"
The kitchen table is also the place were decisions are made. It is at the kitchen table sipping coffee that I have signed one of 4,000 credit-card applications for telephone credit cards that arrive in the daily mail. It is there I have signed life insurance forms, and medical insurance forms, and forms that said it is OK to ask people all kinds of nosy questions about all my life. Somehow the domestic stability of the kitchen table reassures me that it is OK to give people permission to pry.
The kitchen table is also the Ellis Island of a household, the port of entry for any items that come through the door. School books, groceries, treasures from the farmer's market, all stop at the table before moving westward to other parts of the house.
But the main attraction a kitchen table holds for me is that it is a good place to hear things. As a parent you sit at the table and, as the kids talk to each other, you sometimes hear the real version -- beyond "school was OK" line -- of what went on in
And, as a kid, you can learn about the unsanitized -- you'll-never-guess-what-happened-today -- account of adult behavior. This is especially true if the kid sitting at the table keeps quiet and pretends he isn't really listening.
As a kid I lingered at the table while my dad, mom and grandmother would sip a cup of tea after supper and go over the news of the day. Finding out the gritty details and embarrassing moments of life in our town -- Dad enjoyed reading choice letters to the editor aloud to my Mom -- made family life much more interesting.
I especially looked forward to the times when aunts and uncles showed up at the kitchen table. That meant there was more news at the table, and less chance of being detected.
And so I sat in the corner of the kitchen and listened to tales of the neighbor who made Novena to the Blessed Virgin because he had just sold a carload of rotten potatoes, about debates over which aunt made the best gravy, and about who should run for mayor and for president.
Two of my favorite writers, Russell Baker and Garrison Keillor, had similar kitchen-table training. As kids they sat around tables in West Baltimore and in Anoka, Minn., listening to adults talk. Later they used this narrative tradition they learned at a kitchen table to write touching and often hilarious stories about their lives.
It is hard to imagine such stories getting started at a breakfast bar.