To the Table, Everybody
How the dining room came to be
By Noah Salt
Dining Room: According to Merriam-Webster, “Dining Room,” a noun, has one very plain and simple definition: A room used for serving meals.
No obfuscation or fancy verbal footwork there, cousins. But clearly, neither Merriam nor Webster bothered to consult our Southern mother about the proper use of a “Dining Room.” She had very firm (we might even say unbending) views on the subject.
Simply put (and here we are dangerously paraphrasing), the dining room of a responsibly maintained house has traditionally been where important meals are served to one’s family, friends or honored guests on any occasion that merits special treatment. Sunday lunch and meaningful family days like birthdays and anniversaries are high on the official approval list, but national holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner — qualify as even higher in status given the room’s natural air of formality that the rest of our house lacks. Family china, dating back almost to the Mayflower, sparkled from a cherry heirloom cabinet, after all, and the pecan dining room table gleamed with an authority all its own.
Curiously, according to Webster, the word dates from Early Modern English in 1601, the same year William Shakespeare was at his peak and “gobble” and “simpleminded” were current in the lexicon of Elizabethan England, which (not to belabor a point) fairly describes a certain mother’s mood if she detected certain youthful charges gobbling their meals “as if late for a fire,” an offense to a room where meals were meant to be enjoyed at a “civilized” pace.
Whatever else may be true, a modern dining room comes with a colorful legacy. During the Middle Ages, persons of wealth and high social stature dined in Great Halls, stately rooms draped with coats of arms and expensive trappings intended to impress or intimidate friends and adversaries alike. Tables and sideboards were laden with the bounty of summer gardens and freshly killed and cooked game — a place where everything from marriage feasts to statecraft were conducted.
In Colonial America, formal dining rooms developed in only the best of private houses, carefully removed from kitchens where fires were always a danger. Taverns of that era set aside private dining rooms for those needing discretion with their dinner, notably Philadelphia’s famous City Tavern, opened in 1773, where the likes of Adams, Franklin and other Sons of Liberty broke bread and hatched plans for a new nation under God. You can still dine there today where Walnut crosses Second Street in the City of Brotherly Love.
Over time, hotels and inns and finer urban restaurants adopted the concept of private dining rooms — think the Plaza’s Oak Room or the 21 Club — and the elegant formal dining room was established as a staple of middle-class values for decades, up until the 1990s or so, when the so-called “Open” concept knocked down walls that merged kitchen and dining room life in the interest of enhanced sociability. For a time, traditional dining rooms across the fruited plain, especially down here in the South, became little more than idle pass-through museums of family photos and Hummel figurines.
According to more than one architectural authority, like Victorian necklines and pleated plaid skirts, dining rooms are making something of a cultural comeback a almost two decades into the New Millennium. Ancestral memory or simply a yearning for needed decorum is apparently at the heart of this revival, a place set apart for important gatherings, whatever the occasion.
Somewhere, wherever she is, our late Southern mama must be pleased how things that go round, indeed, eventually come round. As our glasses are raised in her favorite room this holiday season — the holiest place in the house once more in fashion — we might be moved to offer, by way of a toast, the fitting words of novelist Anita Diament, who declared, “The Sabbath is a weekly cathedral raised up in my dining room, in my family, in my heart.”
Well said. Now, will someone please pass the gravy boat?