September 06


Coming to the Table

ImageOur family table was once my grandmother’s. It is on the smallish side with a delicate finish. It has traveled with me my whole adult life. It is where my friend Rick and I ate BBQ pork and drank large cans of Bottington’s after a night class in Virginia. It is where my husband and I had our first dinners as a family in a cramped apartment near Iowa City. It is where I laid out buffets and whimsical cakes for wedding showers, baby showers, and birthday parties in our townhouse. And now it is newly outfitted with an oilcloth to protect it from the spills and art projects that are an inevitable part of toddler life.

Tables are important. They are where family and friends gather, where stories are told and lives are intertwined. They are places for laughter, tears, lingering, and love, and Shauna Niequist offers a beautiful testament to their value in her latest essay collection Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table.

Niequist’s previous essay collections, Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet, celebrate beauty in the ordinary and joy in the sorrow. Bread & Wine takes up those themes again in a series of essays about eating, cooking, hospitality, parenting, family, and friendship. She seamlessly intertwines tales of attending cooking school, marriage, running the Chicago marathon, food allergies, travel, body image woes, grieving multiple miscarriages, and baking cookies with her son, proving her thesis that food not only sustains us but indeed shapes us as individuals:

This is what I want you to do; I want you to tell someone you love them, and dinner’s at six. I want you to throw open your front door and welcome the people you love into the inevitable mess with hugs and laughter. I want you to light a burner on the stove, to chop and stir and season with love and abandon. Begin with an onion and a drizzle of olive oil, and go from there, any one of a million different places, any one of a million different meals.

Gather the people you love around your table and feed them with love and honesty and creativity. Feed them with your hands and the flavors and smells that remind you of home and beauty and the best stories you’ve ever heard, the best stories you’ve ever lived.

Like Niequist, I have a toddler who prefers to start his day before the sun does. The biggest compliment I can give this book is that I stayed up past midnight reading it one night, and I begrudgingly forced myself to quit because I knew I would be summoned for breakfast in a few hours.  I read her two other collections in quick succession. Reading these heartfelt essays is indulgent. Like sitting with a beloved friend over steamy lattes at a local coffee shop, they are simply delightful.

Niequist also includes some of her favorite recipes in Bread & Wine. Not a recipe writer herself, she borrows from popular magazines, beloved cookbooks, and her own friends’ recipe stashes. This makes the recipe collection accessible to your average cook. So far, I have tried the Goat Cheese Scrambled Eggs, and my son and I made the Breakfast Cookies for Daddy one morning. The Esquites got gobbled up at my department’s potluck, and the Game-Changing Roasted Broccoli is honestly my family’s new favorite food. I strongly suggest you buy your own hardcover copy and smear the pages with oily fingers and dribbles of melted chocolate.

At the end of July we had friends over for dinner. I went downstairs to get the extra chairs for our table, extra chairs that we didn’t acquire until we moved into our current, larger home. I stepped back from the table and asked my husband, “Where on Earth did people sit when we had all those dinner parties in Iowa? We only had four chairs!” He said, “We would bring in the folding chairs from the patio.” “Or the ottoman,” I added. “And the bar stools!” he offered. For a moment I was mortified. What kind of hosts let their guests sit on patio chairs and ottomans? But that shame quickly dissipated as a flood of memories came back: meals, parties, and shared cooking adventures. So many dear friendships were cultivated around that table, regardless of the seating arrangements. My fellow Lettered Ladies have starring roles in so many of these memoirs, and I am delighted to be sitting around a table with them again, virtual though it may be.