Life Journeys on a Table Top

Life Journeys on a Table Top
Photo by Sam Loyd on Unsplash

Tables are hewn, planed and sanded; made with love and artistry. The best ones are made for life, and someone else’s life after that, and for the generations to follow. They’re marked with the evidence of those who went before, and the curious mind can imagine other elbows leaning on them, and other hands reaching for food and passing the salt.

The table was always there. The first table the boy, now grown, is able to remember is the one in the kitchen, just to the left as you come in from the passage. It was one of those formica tables from the Fifties, with a chrome rim around the top edges. It had shiny hairpin legs and was topped in marbled mint green. You’ve had to dig deep into hidden dungeons in your mind to find the table and picture it. Your mind saw it as wooden at first, but you dug deeper, and slowly it came into focus like a car on the horizon on the long road from Aberdeen to Beaufort West; when you first spot the shimmering car-mirage, it looks like an old 1954 Oldsmobile, all round and burly, but by the time it’s a hundred metres away it’s been transformed into a modern BMW in search of something to tailgate and flash its headlights at.

Your old table is clear now. You must have been at that table as a baby, in your high chair, banging a spoon and dribbling mashed pumpkin down your chin. A few years later you’d sit there for your breakfast oats or Maltabella, before packing your satchel for school with its tuck box of a white plastic bottle full or Oros, a polony sandwich and a banana. When you’d been good (or the morning after a good hiding) there might be a Crunchie or Cadbury’s Flake. That evening you’d sit there for your bubble-and-squeak dinner or your chicken pie smothered in tomato sauce. Two or three times a week there’d be blancmange made from a packet, or a Moir’s butterscotch pudding, or tinned fruit and jelly with custard. On a Saturday morning there’d be slices of ham and two fried eggs.

But the best tables, your favourite tables, have always been the old wooden ones, whether mahogany, teak or the beloved oak. Especially oak. Old. Grand. As stolid as it is solid; as dependable as the ancient mountains. And turned. Those legs, curvaceous yet sturdy, carpentry’s paradox. That top, gravity’s promise to the diner, reassuring in its dependability; I’m strong, I’ve got you. Let your hair down, come on, pour another glass.

If that table only had ears and eyes, what stories it could tell. Of lovers spurned and derring-do, of confessions made and lies told, of secrets whispered when another diner is looking the other way. The tables in the baronial dining rooms of the palaces and castles of Europe, now they must have stories like few others. The tables of ancient civilisations, and of despots and conquerors, what horrors they must have heard. What boasts must those long, groaning tables leant on by Warrior Kings have been privy to; what morsels of fate and history has been divulged between the pheasant and the grouse, the chine of beef and the carpe of veal, the haunch of boar and the Royal Swan.

At the old Cape, how lavishly the new colonists must have dined on the denningvleis and bobotie, soetpatats and kerrieboontjies, while servants whose parents had been slaves cooked at hearths in baking kitchens, wishing their antecedents had remained in the east and not taken the great ships to the mysterious faraway land. Did the cook surreptitiously pickle some leftover fish and take it to her quarters; and did the madam notice?

When Rhodes was Prime Minister, what thoughtless remarks were made bitterly by an over-made up madam about the servants, and did the attendant staff salivate at the sight of such riches on the plates, and wish they could not smell the aromas coming off the platters they were carrying, cognisant of the simple meal that awaited them when they returned to their quarters in the rear of the property. And did the servant – hovering silently between pouring wine and serving plates, from the right if you please, have we not told you before? – not flinch when his master remarked to his host that he was entirely in favour of the Strop Bill, and indeed, he wished it passed through the parliament with haste. And did Mrs Schreiner, seated near enough to Rhodes to be able to fix him with that glare whenever his eyes passed her way, not stiffen her lip on hearing the hated Bill referred to, and blurt out that it would be passed over her dead body, and would her wish not come to pass.

You wouldn’t know any of this when you were just a boy with big eyes staring out of the back of the 1964 Cortina GT as the car passed through Springbok en route to Cape Town and the fancy restaurant dad had promised to take mom to, and therefore you too. Your eyes would widen when, finally, the dessert trolley was brought to your table and you had to choose between the crème caramel and the roly-poly. But your fork slowed and paused at the edge of the plate as you watched, bewitched, as the waiter made Crêpes Suzette right there at the table, pouring in a strange golden liqueur and folding the crêpes in half and then again in a quarter-fold, then gave it the flame – whoosh!!! – and let the fire die down while he plated it and placed it in front of mum, but not you, while dad stuck his spoon into his Rum Baba.

In time the kitchen table back home would be 700 miles away, replaced by rows and rows of long tables at which the boarding school cooks would make you eat melkkos, which your English upbringing just did not understand. Sweetly hot spicy milk, what was that? Pudding maybe.

The tables of your life would be many, both at home and when you were off into the world. In the early Nineties, in the party house in Tamboerskloof, we had a dinner party one Saturday when our guests included Tony Weaver and Liz Fish, and we had roast leg of lamb. They were leaving the next day on their Big African Adventure. Everyone had been asked to give them tins of “something interesting” for their journey. I’d forgotten what, but Tony, now once again a colleague here at Daily Maverick, reminds me that we gave them two tins or artichoke hearts which, he says, “we ate with some fresh trout I had caught on the slopes of Mount Kenya”. That thought is pure romance.

Once, the first time we visited London, we found ourselves in the Dickens room upstairs at Rules, a private dining room with a large round table and walls clad with images of the great writer. You’d be served old-fashioned very British Fayre, grouse and partridge, and heavy, syrupy puddings, and found it somehow comforting and familiar. And it would make you wonder if food memory is somehow passed in the genes, and about reincarnation; or whether they were only redolent of tastes and flavours you’d imagined when reading Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

Perhaps it was not surprising that you took to British fare as an adult, given your Yorkshire origins and the cuisine of “The Old Country”, as our parents’ generation used to call it, having become a part of the bill of fare at the Tavern of the Seas. I suppose we could try to decolonise that, but it’s only food; I do hope the silliness of such a notion would be apparent. As it happens, British fare has a vast repertoire, and only the tiniest fraction of it seems to have taken root at the old Cape. For one thing, we don’t have all of the ingredients they have.

And in contemporary London, in any event, there’s a world of cuisines on sale in the supermarkets, butcheries, speciality stores and those wonderful, very British food halls. In 1996, I remember a special family holiday when we rented a flat for a week in Gloucester Terrace in Bayswater. Selfridges, near Marble Arch, was a 10-minute walk away or a quick Tube hop, and we decided to host a small dinner party in the flat and pretend we were proper Londoners having people round.

I Tube-hopped to Selfridges and wandered into the food hall where I bought slices of a superb French pâté de foie gras, a Thai red curry paste, some deboned chicken thighs, sundry vegetables, and a dessert which, quite honestly, I have forgotten. Only six years later we were to find ourselves living in Chichester, so many more trips to London were on the cards, as were many an evening with our elbows on characterful old tables in pubs from London to Cornwall and as far away as Bradford, in the north, where, with my elbows on a table for two, shared with my cousin Ben, I ate what was emphatically the best curry I have eaten anywhere.

But the most special British dining experience of them all happened not in England, but in Scotland, at Alladale, a game lodge where a gillie took us over soggy heather and through the glens to watch stags and tire us out for the dinner that was coming our way that night. In a baronial hall, after a splendid repast, as replete as a glutton who’d been locked in a food hall overnight, we all suddenly went quiet when, from the passage, out of sight, came the firing up of the bagpipes. Our eyes turned to the doorway in which appeared a piper followed by the kitchen staff, a cake raised high above their heads, alight with many candles. They’d got wind that it was my 50th birthday and, yes, tears streamed down my face at the utter beauty of the moment, and the thought, and the kindness, as a roomful of people who were strangers a day before rose to their feet and cheered.

I delighted in food halls then, as I do now. I often say, with tongue only partly in cheek, that when I finally have to go, kicking and screaming, into that good night, I’d like my ashes to be scattered in Harrods Food Hall. I have given clear instructions to this effect, including how to conceal the ashes in clothing and how to release them but by bit, while wandering around admiring the parfaits, cheeses and iced dainties, being sure to have left before the sweepers come along after closing time. Most of me may be binned and shipped off to who knows where, perhaps a landfill near the Thames or a skip in mythical Albert Square, where a molecule or two of what once was me can be an invisible extra in EastEnders. And back in Knightsbridge, undetected forever, a microscopic memory of me that the cleaners overlooked will linger forever in the confines of Harrods Food Hall, to savour every aroma as the world, the entire world, strolls by, one footstep at a time. DM



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