One fall evening not so long ago, New York City’s High Line was filled with a chorus of one thousand singers chanting stories of the household dining table. The occasion was an interactive performance of The Mile-Long Opera: A Biography of 7 O’Clock.1 Seven o’clock being the dinner hour, part of the text written by Claudia Rankine was inspired by interviews with New Yorkers about their relationships to their dining tables. Many of the relationships described are not ideal (the dining tables may go unused or their owners often end up eating alone rather than surrounded by friends and family); nevertheless, these dining tables offer their owners a connection to history. For example, Rankine writes that a dining table from 1924 “tethers” its owner to “a past [they are] almost completely divorced from” (Rankine and Carson 2019). The stories of these dining tables of varying styles create a kind of patchwork quilt that connects their owners to each other as well. Because the dining table is now a familiar piece of furniture found in homes around the world, many can reflect on the character of their dining table.
As with the voices represented in the Mile-Long Opera, there are dining tables in my family that connect us to the past. My grandparents’ dining table made of an old church door, my parents’ colonial table from Pennsylvania, and even my Ikea dining table (a faux-wood tabletop attached to metal legs with Baroque curves) all speak to different time periods and are all descendants of the medieval table. A cultural history is embedded in these tables along with a familial history. Structurally speaking, a dining table is a flat surface held up by legs made to elevate food from the floor. This shape has changed over time, and the various forms of this simple piece of furniture are laden with symbolism. Dining tables have become so ubiquitous that they are easily taken for granted these days, frequently abandoned for the comfort of the couch. Studies have indicated an increasing neglect of the dining table around the world (especially in North America) as families eat together less and an increasing number of young people living alone don’t feel the need to own one.2 In its early days, owning a dining table or being invited to sit around one was something to aspire to and so it became a symbol of power and still is. While many may feel divorced from the dining table’s past, this history continues to speak through its structure and through the symbolism attached to it.
At a 2014 fundraiser, Senator Elizabeth Warren stated, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” to argue the case for having more women in the US Senate.3 The phrase “a seat at the table” is imbedded in the English language as a metaphor for having a voice or being part of a movement. Following Warren’s line of thinking, one could see history as a high school cafeteria filled with dining tables: there are those who have a seat at the table, those who want a seat at the table, and those who create their own table. When Tyler Perry won the Ultimate Icon Award at the 2018 BET awards, he criticized those fighting for a seat at the table, asserting that he would rather concentrate on building his own. He capped off this rallying cry with a reference to Psalm 23 of the Bible, professing, “If I could just build this table, God would prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.”4 This sentiment was greeted with a standing ovation. Perry used the dining table to represent an empire built in the face of adversity, just as early Christians used the dining table as a symbol for building their empire in the face of Roman persecution.
The symbolism that Jesus and his apostles attached to the dining table was part of what would be understood today as a major rebranding process to counter the Roman way of life. Ancient Romans were one of the first cultures to embrace the idea of dining around a table, and their dining culture was famously hedonistic.5 A banquet held by wealthy and powerful Romans involved reclining on couches around a low table called a mensa, which was often made of precious materials such as bronze, marble, or maple.6 In Satire XI, the second-century poet Juvenal criticized this decadence, writing, “But your modern millionaire cannot enjoy his dinner…unless that broad tabletop / Rests on an ivory leopard” (Juvenal 1998). This dining culture set them apart, inspiring envy in less-developed tribes like the Britons, which the Romans used as leverage to gain political power. The historian Tacitus wrote, “And so they were gradually led into the demoralising vices of porticoes, baths and grand dinner parties. The naïve Britons described these things as ‘civilisation,’ when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement” (Tacitus 1970).
The Roman Empire also extended its influence over Jerusalem where a certain radical carpenter was gaining followers. In 33 AD, when the Last Supper supposedly took place, “Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve” (Matthew 26:20 [NIV]) in Roman fashion.7 Although the table may have been a Roman mensa, the gathering was a subversive act. According to the New Testament, it is at this somber and symbolic Passover dinner that Jesus predicts his betrayal, bids farewell to his apostles, and sets himself up as a martyr. Jesus transubstantiates his body and blood into bread and wine for his worshippers to consume (setting the stage for the Christian Communion ceremony) and charges the apostles with the continuation of his teachings. At this dinner, Jesus also bestows the dining table with religious symbolism when he asks his dining companions, “Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as one who serves…And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:25–30 [BSB]). Jesus recognizes that those who have a seat at the table are those with authority. Unlike the tables populated by wealthy Roman rulers (where they would not have been welcome), theirs is a table of religious servants hoping to achieve holy greatness in the kingdom of heaven. This new characterization of the dining table was crucial to the spread of the religious teachings that would become known as Christianity.
In other stories the apostles told after Jesus’s death (which were later published in the Bible), the dining table is often where he mingles with and blesses societal outcasts such as lepers, tax collectors, or “sinful women.” The dining table becomes a powerful symbol because it is a space where holy events and even miracles may occur, while also being a common household object that brings people together. As the apostles gained followers by spreading these stories, the dining table became a site of worship, since the only place one could safely do so was in the privacy of their home.8 According to Classics professor L. Michael White, “The worship of an early Christian house church probably centered around the dinner table…and the center of their activity really is the fellowship meal or the communal meal” (White 1998). Ultimately, the apostles’ work was effective, and hordes of followers clamored to sit at Jesus’s table, including the Emperor Constantine, who helped to create tolerance for Christianity in Rome and later converted to Christianity on his deathbed. The rise of Christianity weakened the foundation of the Roman Empire, ultimately contributing to its demise.9 Jesus and his apostles had succeeded in turning the tables on Rome.
With the fall of Rome, the luxurious mensa and its couches faded away to be replaced by the humble trestle table—a board laid on top of wooden trestles accompanied by benches that forced one to sit upright. This new form was evidence of a major power shift and became the unimpressive centerpiece of a dining culture that permeated the newly Christian Europe and persists today. The trestle table could be found mainly in castles and monasteries, which served as beacons for the medieval public. While castles demonstrated the power and wealth of the monarchy, monasteries demonstrated a pious Christian lifestyle. The spare design of this table, devoid of decoration or ornament, reflected the humble piety idealized in Christianity. Dining halls of monasteries and convents featured long tables running down the center where monks and nuns took a break from prayer to gather for a reflective meal.
Many refectories featured painted frescos of dining scenes from the Bible. The most famous of these, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, was originally a mural in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Instead of portraying a historically accurate depiction of the apostles reclining around a mensa, DaVinci painted Jesus and the apostles sitting on one side of a trestle table. Perhaps this is because it was more relatable to Renaissance Italians and more visually dramatic, but it was also an erasure of the Roman dining table.
Over time, trestle tables became more refined. The legs became joined to the table, the materials upgraded to finer woods, and sometimes ornate decorations were added. This dining table arrived in the Americas in the 1700s. Eventually, with the increased production of the Industrial Revolution, the dining table became more affordable, arriving in the homes of the middle class and becoming a more common household commodity. In the 1800s, dining tables were hot spots for upward mobility as the middle and upper classes could mingle at dinner parties. In an instructional manual titled Manners and Tone of Good Society: Or Solecisms to Be Avoided, the anonymous author, “A Member of the Aristocracy,” describes “dinner giving” as “a direct route to obtaining a footing in society” (Anonymous 1879: 92). Formal dining reached its peak during the Victorian era when a gleaming mahogany dining table elaborately laid with copious amounts of silver and glassware was a common indicator of high social standing.10 As the twentieth century progressed and improved technology allowed for tables to be made of less-expensive materials (such as synthetic wood, Formica, metal, and glass), Western dining culture became progressively more casual. The invention of the television and convenience foods lured many away from their dining tables and introduced greater freedom of choice in where and how to eat. While the formalities of Victorian dining culture have dissipated, and some feel empowered by eschewing the dining table, the idea of using it as a space for self-betterment persists.11 Indeed, contemporary anthropologist Robin Fox refers to the dining table as “a shrine to ambition and hope” (Fox : 5).
As dining tables have become more affordable, they have also become more accessible. Minorities and women, who were often excluded from early European and American tables and made to serve, seek to reclaim the symbolic table, and many contemporary cultural icons, such as Tyler Perry, have found inspiration in the Bible. Certain female artists have repurposed the imagery of The Last Supper, which depicts a kind of holy boys’ club, to express empowerment through unity and camaraderie.
Women have often felt that they do not have a seat at the table, and even when they have been present at the table, their voices have been repressed by their male counterparts. Feminist artist Judy Chicago described a dinner party she attended in 1974, where “the men at the table were all professors…and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth. I started thinking that women have never had a Last Supper, but they have had dinner parties” (Isenberg 1978: 12). This was the inspiration for her most famous piece, The Dinner Party—a triangular banquet table featuring handcrafted table settings representing famous women throughout history. Each wing of the triangle seats thirteen female icons (the number of men present at the Last Supper) from Prehistory to the Women’s Revolution.12
At Chicago’s table, powerful women such as Ishtar, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Sojourner Truth celebrate their femininity freely, with no men to repress them. One imagines what these women of diverse talents and backgrounds would discuss. Almost fifty years later, the women’s rights movement is ongoing and expanding. Recently, sister music moguls Beyoncé and Solange Knowles used the table to promote female power, especially that of black women—an historically abused and underrepresented group. In an NPR interview, Solange explained the title of her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table.13 She emphasized, “I’m inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it’s an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you…We’ve been doing these listening sessions where we set up this literal table and it almost looks like the Last Supper” (Knowles 2016). In her 2017 Grammy’s performance, Beyoncé referenced her sister’s album and The Last Supper with a stage set featuring a long table.14 Dressed in the halo headdresses and robes of female deities, a pregnant Beyoncé and twenty-four dancers gave a performance pregnant with meaning. By sitting around this table and then dancing on top of it, they demonstrated their command of it, using the table once again to advance a conversation and a movement. In her virtual speech to the graduating class of 2020, Beyoncé emphasized this message to describe the process of building her own company: “Not enough black women had a seat at the table, so I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table. Then I had to invite the best there was to have a seat…women, men, outsiders, underdogs, people that were overlooked and waiting to be seen.”15
A dining table holds up more than plates of food; it supports the history of Western society, a heavy feast of ever-changing values and morals. Waxing lyrical, The Mile-Long Opera chorus chanted, “O dining table, you carry existence across centuries!” (Carson and Rankine 2018). As a piece of furniture that encourages socialization, it has been the birthplace of cultural movements and power shifts. How many have leaned on this table for support while summoning the courage to speak up and send a message across its surface? A dining table represents the zeitgeist, a space for inclusion and advancement, an invitation to come together, and an opportunity for communication waiting to be seized. Currently, in our pandemic state of emergency, many citizens of the world are unable to come together physically. Yet even in isolation, the dining table can be a space for empowerment. While in quarantine, Spanish artist Isabella Killoran had dinner parties with herself, which she shared via Instagram. This performative dinner party is part of a work-in-progress inspired by her experiences with human interaction at the dining table, and by the work of surrealist painter Remedios Varo.16 In recent posts, Killoran sits alone at a round table set for six. The paper place settings bear the names, “Miss Hope, Mr. Patience, Miss Kindness, Miss Resilience, Mr. Humor & Miss Presence” (@isabellakilloran, April 10, 2020). The dining table is a place where she chooses to welcome virtues and identify emotions by naming and personifying them. In a situation that inspires feelings of powerlessness, it is a way to feel some kind of power over oneself. As many have returned to their dining tables due to pandemic lockdowns, it is the perfect time to use it for reconnection and reflection. By doing so, one might have much more to bring to the table when it is possible to mingle with friends and strangers again.
The Mile-Long Opera was an interactive performance conceived by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and composer David Lang, with words and lyrics by Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine.
In 1979, sociologist Claude Fischler coined the term “gastro-anomie” to describe anxiety over the potential disappearance of traditional family meals due to individualized and less-structured lifestyles. For a more current article exploring this trend in the United States, see Joe Pinsker, “Something Is Changing in the Way People Eat at Home,” The Atlantic, May 22, 2019, www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/05/meals-couches-bedrooms-kitchen-table/590026/.
A version of this quote is also attributed to gangster Al Capone. He supposedly said, “You’re either at the table or on the menu.”
For the video: www.youtube.com/watch? v=DVjjSxpqbOo.
Ancient Greeks also had a dining culture like that of Ancient Rome and gathered to eat around a similar style of table.
William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin, “Mensa,” in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, edited by John Murray (London: Abermarle St., 1890). Online at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text? doc=Perseus: text:1999.04.0063: entry=mensa-cn.
In The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Colin Humphreys arrives at this date by aligning accounts in biblical texts with astronomical occurrences.
Helmut Koester, “Diversity in Early Christian Communities,” PBS: Frontline, April 1998, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/diversity.html.
Donald L. Wasson, “Fall of the Western Roman Empire,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, April 12, 2018, www.ancient.eu/article/835/fall-of-the-western-roman-empire/.
Bill Bryson writes, “The nineteenth century…became the age of the overdressed dining table…As well as a generous array of knives, forks and spoons of a more or less conventional nature, the diner needed also to know how to recognize and manipulate specialized cheese scoops, olive spoons, terrapin forks, oyster prongs, chocolate muddlers, gelatin knives, tomato slicers, and tongs of every size and degree of springiness” (Bryson 2010).
For example, writer Claire Margine characterizes the dining table as “a luxury that doesn’t do much for me,” choosing to eat meals around the coffee table instead. For her, the coffee table does not imply the ceremony, guilt, or “the cosmic load” of the dining table. Claire Margine, “I May Never Own a Dining Room Table Again,” Apartment Therapy, March 7, 2018, www.thekitchn.com/i-may-never-own-a-dining-room-table-again-254869.
“The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago,” Brooklyn Museum, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Exhibitions, www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party.
A Seat at the Table explores the trials and tribulations of black women in America.
For the song and video: www.dailymotion.com/video/x5bmdh2.
For the video: www.youtube.com/watch? v=vLo5XMjIJD8.
Varo’s paintings often feature women in isolation expressing empowerment.