Set the Table, Light the Candle
By Shannan Miller
One way people are coping with sheltering in place is finding new ways to make everyday activities a little more special. Some of our adaptations might be temporary, good for relieving boredom and elevating our spirits during a unique time. Other new practices might develop into routines that we carry over into our post-quarantine lives. For me and my husband, a ritual we have cultivated over time - having dinner together - has received even more attention as we, like everyone else, have been eating more meals at home. I feel like our dinners that we give extra special attention to a couple of nights a week have helped us weather the stressors of this unprecedented time. It led me to reflect on how and why we started building this tradition years ago.
When I got married about 15 years ago a therapist encouraged me to make it a priority to sit down to dinner with my husband on a regular basis. He said it didn’t have to be every night, but we should try to have dinner together several times a week. Back then, my husband, Andy, and I both worked full time, often had commitments after work and followed our own schedules. Neither of us did much cooking. We were used to grabbing dinner on our own unless we went to a restaurant and let someone else do all the work. But I knew the therapist was talking about having dinner together at home. He said it was a bit of a canary in the coal mine for couples. Over time, those who did not regularly have dinner together tended to struggle in their marriage. He explained that sharing meals simply gives couples a regular, built-in time to talk to each other.
Around this same time, I was in the produce section of Martin’s Super Market and ran into an acquaintance, a truly wise, kind, older gentleman who had been married for many years. His cart was loaded with produce, some of which I could not even identify. I probably had a bag of baby carrots in my cart and felt accomplished. He told me that he and his wife split the shopping. He got all the fresh food, and she went ahead with a separate cart and got the other groceries. “My cart is always the more expensive one,” he said with a smile. He inquired how Andy and I, the newlyweds, were coming along, and, without much comment from me, he launched ahead, “You two should have dinner together, find time, once in a while, it doesn’t have to be fancy. Pick up something here from the deli. They have dinners ready-made. You pick it up, bring it home, and share a meal. It’s so important. Will you do that?”
Does this happen to you? Does the cosmos send you messages via people randomly stopping you to convey fervent, heartfelt advice? I am generally inclined to shake off such messages and proceed as if I didn’t hear the call for some life-changing action, but it niggles. In the case of the shared-meal ambassadors, I knew their suggestions had taken root when one day I sat at the kitchen table eating a microwave entree and looked up to see my husband sitting 20 feet away from me in the living room eating a frozen pizza and watching TV. “This is ridiculous!” I shouted. Not for the first time, Andy had no idea what I was upset about. It seems, in our household, the cosmos only speaks to me. I updated him, and eventually, we decided to try having dinner together at home several times a week.
So where do you start when you have no practice sitting down to have dinner together in your own home? Or, as in my case, you have no practice as a consenting adult. I grew up in a family where attendance was required at daily, shared, sit-down meals, but it was simply how I got fed and did not translate into a moral imperative in my adult life. Now as an adult, I was choosing, a few nights a week, to share a meal at home with my husband. No mandate, no quarantine, purely voluntary. It felt odd at first like we were play-acting, a couple of non-cooks cobbling together a meal and sitting down at a table in a quiet kitchen with no familiar brewpub noise in the background, no one delivering plates of food to our table or asking if we wanted another pint or water refill. But we stuck it out, and, over time, it started to feel more natural.
I took inspiration from meals I shared with friends after college. Two old high school friends of mine were rooming together and often had me over for dinner. They were pretty good cooks and even though their upper floor apartment in an old duplex was nothing fancy, they always set the table and lit a candle. I remember the three of us twenty-somethings sitting there in shorts and t-shirts at an old wood table with matching placemats, cloth napkins, a well-prepared meal, and a candle burning at the center of the table. It made me feel completely pampered. I wanted to bring some of that attention and care to the meals that Andy and I were sharing.
So we started paying attention to details like… glassware. Andy became a stickler for having the right type of glass to suit whatever we were drinking. He even picked up some old Schlitz goblets at a yard sale to use for low-brow beers. Since we only did dinner together at home once or twice a week, it wasn’t too great a splurge to open a bottle of wine, so I upgraded from short juice glasses to a set of wine glasses I got at Target. Soon it became a mission of ours to hunt up good $9 bottles of wine at various supermarkets.
Then, I decided to start using my good Denby dishes I had gotten for Christmas over the years rather than the everyday hand-me-down plates we had inherited from family members. Next, I found two matching placemats, and, over time, we got good at quickly throwing together a pretty sharp looking table. I have to say, on the occasions that I now come home from work and see that Andy has set a beautiful table for dinner, I am delighted.
A key part of my message that applies to these challenging times when we’re all adapting on the fly to new life circumstances is to not let perfection keep you from the goal, or, I should say, the gold. The gold is the part you will treasure. If you’re thinking Andy and I have channeled Martha Stewart and a nicely set table is a mere outgrowth of our perfectly maintained home, stop the fantasy reel because we don’t live there. In our case, the goal is to intentionally have dinner together in our own home a few times a week. Making the table look nice for our sit-down meal elevates the experience, but I have learned that it’s ok if the rest of the house is a mess. Baskets of laundry may need to be folded, the mail may be piled up, and the dog’s toys may be everywhere. The kitchen stove and counter may be littered with remnants of meal prep, food wrappers, dirty pans, and the burnt bits you scraped off the main dish before serving it. None of that matters as long as you end up sitting at the same table together to eat dinner. Clean-up can happen later. For the 20 or 30 minutes that you rest in your chairs, try to do just that - rest. You made it. Mission accomplished. You’re eating together.
While my surroundings might be a bit of a mess, I like to have a somewhat peaceful field of vision while I’m eating dinner. So, one of the first things I do when getting dinner ready is clear the table of clutter. Whether you’re going to use the kitchen table or dining room table or a card table, clear off the crap. Whatever you tossed there over the last couple of days, library books, car parts (Andy!), your laptop, cereal boxes, the cat, move it off. And, before you freak out, I’m not talking about putting anything where it belongs. You have probably caught on that this is not a home-organizational tutorial. Just shift the stuff off the table to some other temporary spot - the kitchen counter, the floor, the seat of a chair, it doesn’t matter, but I find it’s preferable to have it slightly out of sight to facilitate a sense of calm while you’re having dinner. The side benefit is, if you make this a priority, it will remind you to keep the clutter on the table to a minimum during the week.
Once your table is quickly cleared (you can move everything back after dinner if necessary), wipe down the table, throw down some placemats, and set out a few of your nice dishes and glassware. Just like my old friends, I now light a candle at the center of the table. Home decor gurus will tell you a scent-free candle is best so it doesn’t compete with the aroma of your food, but if you’re new at this, any candle will do. I like using beeswax tapers from Unity Gardens at the South Bend Farmer’s Market because they’re scentless, absorb food odors, and work well for short burn times, but I’m sure I started with a fat red pillar candle leftover from Christmas. You’d be amazed at the simple pleasure a lit candle brings to the table. It further elevates the experience from a mundane routine to a mindful ritual. I also think lighting a candle is centering. It’s a way of saying, ok, now we begin.
All that is left is eating. And, if you feel like it, you can talk to each other.
Shannan Miller spends half her working life assisting patrons at River Park Branch Library in South Bend, IN and the other half as a writer. Full disclosure, she does not have a cat.