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Essay

“English Tables” By Kathryn Walton-Elliott

by Grace Bonney

Walton-Elliott Headshot

[Today is the 4th installment of our new essay column, curated by Ashley C. Ford. You can read previous installments here.]

In 2006, I flew to England to study for a year. By the following September, I had moved in with the woman I would marry. As Kate and I started building a life together, she introduced me to friends and family, individuals who would become touchstones during my time in the UK. Though I initially met them in parking lots, at front doors and over the phone, I didn’t really get to know any of them until we gathered around tables of all shapes and sizes. There was the refinished 1940s table where we hosted dinner parties, the patched-together Thanksgiving surface made from doors and camping furniture, my mother-in-law’s beautiful oval piece, and even a cheap patio table that saw us through months of renovation. It was around all these and more that I connected with the new people in my life and built sturdy relationships with them.

My first memory of a meal with my wife is in a London curry house where we each silently tried to guess if this was a date. It didn’t take long, maybe a couple of weeks, for us to figure out how we felt about each other. After that, I spent many meals perched at a tiny, dusty table in the cheap 1930s terrace Kate was remodeling at the time. Flexible eating surfaces have featured heavily in our relationship, since we can’t resist the challenge of making a home our own. After that first house sold, we took on another in Bristol that lacked heating and a proper kitchen. Unable to live anywhere else during the renovations, we moved from room to room, cooking on a camping stove and dining at that basic wooden patio table that took up more than its fair share of our limited living space.

Slowly, with the help of professionals, we knocked out a wall, moved windows, installed beautiful cherry and oak kitchen cabinets and, finally, took our vintage table out of storage. I can still remember the bright feeling of looking over the new room, the relief of having a special place to cook and dine. Since then, we’ve eaten thousands of meals together, most of them made in tandem, moving around the kitchen in a well-practiced dance that is comfort itself. As single people, we each cooked simply to gain nutrition, as a practical measure. Together, we found the excitement of making meals from scratch, of experimenting and exploring new flavors.

One of Kate’s favorite American food discoveries was sweet potato casserole. I shared the recipe during our first Thanksgiving, and she now deems it a necessity every November. Even though we’ve lived in England for nearly a decade, Thanksgiving has become a yearly ritual. Initiated amongst our friends by another British-American couple, the November feast moves to a different house each year, but always includes sweet potato casserole, turkey, mashed potatoes, and buttermilk biscuits. I insist on the buttermilk biscuits. All fifteen of us share what we’re thankful for while enjoying close proximity to the people we love. It’s a touchstone for me, Thanksgiving, an anchor to my culture and a reminder to keep in touch with my spread-out English community.

One person who never makes it to Thanksgiving is my Sri Lankan mother-in-law. Very British, very loving, and quite comfortable in her own home, J makes up for her absence in November by supplying us with lavish meals every time we visit. I can’t count how many aromatic morsels have been urged onto the yoga figured plates set before us at her house. Keen home cooks, we’ll often ask her how to make some particularly lovely dish, and she’ll explain using her thumb to show measures of spices against the other fingers on her right hand. Over the tops of the curries, pies, stews and cakes, J will tell us about moving from Sri Lanka in the 1960s to work as a surgical and neo-natal nurse in the UK. Or she’ll reminisce about raising her children with her loving late husband. Or she might explain details of her most recent paintings. More than anywhere else, I have found the bond between love, good conversation and warm food around J’s table.

Elsewhere, I found the food doesn’t always need to be great. I’ve listened over greasy, basic fish and chips to friends’ troubles and they’ve heard me pour my frustrations out between bites of quick take-away pizza. When some of our closest friends struggled with the fall-out of their adopted children’s traumatic past, Kate and I would bring over card games, order in something oily, then offer whatever comfort we could to amazing people trying to do the impossible. When a difficult job was crushing one of our spirits or we’d had another failed attempt at becoming pregnant, they’d return the gesture, offering sympathy with a side of mushroom fried rice and spring rolls.

As I write this, Kate and I are sitting in a plane over the Atlantic, headed towards the US and a scary new life there. We’ve sold our 1940s table, given away our dining chairs. Our pots and pans are in a shipping container and our many spices have been gifted to J’s pantry. The people who bought our house are probably trying out the stove at this moment, stocking up the fridge, and piling plates next to the sink. The next few weeks are going to be strange ones as we figure out a new kitchen, which grocery stores to use and how to sit most comfortably around a borrowed table. But our friends, the ones with whom we shared our troubles, are already settled a few hours from our new home. And my family is waiting, along with old friends I knew before I crossed the ocean that first time.

I know that the coming days, weeks, months, and probably years, are going to have their hard moments. I know that, sometimes, I’m going to feel like leaping on the next flight back to England. I know that I’m going to miss so many people and that I’m going to miss J in particular. There will be a whole new collection of meals, traditions, and gatherings of people as we sort out our new life, so those hard moments will pass. Regardless, I know that every now and then images will still leap into my mind of time spent with loved ones 4,000 miles away, and I expect, more often than not, those images will include some type of food and a table.

About Kathryn: Kathryn Walton-Elliott has recently returned to the Pacific Northwest after working in British schools and museums for almost a decade. Having rediscovered her love of language through a passion project on women in history, she is currently throwing herself into the world of freelance writing while working as a civic tour guide. You can find her on Twitter @Matriline.

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