Community at the Table

Posted on April 5, 2017

Why gathering around the dinner table matters to one local mom.

The memory bank of my childhood is filled with one scene more than any other: the dinner table. In the busyness of family life with two working parents and two active kids, the dinner table seemed to solidify our various familial roles. My mom ran the monotonous marathon of motherhood, getting the food on the table and us in our seats night after night while we mostly took her for granted. My dad was the behind-the-scenes guy, whisking my brother and me out of her hair with a living room floor wrestling match or soccer drills in the backyard when he got home from work, then doing all the post-dinner dishes, every night. My brother was the precocious one, bantering about baseball stats in elementary school and politics in high school, always hungry for more facts and unafraid to ask questions. I was the token extrovert in a family of introverts, telling stories about my friends and cooking up plans for the next slumber party. The dinner table, more than anywhere else, was where my family was a family.

The significance of the dinner table rang true in my extended family as well. When my cousin came out in her early 20s, my grandpa told her he didn’t care if she brought a boy around or a girl around; he just wanted her to find someone who made her happy and to bring that person to dinner. The table wasn’t just where we were a family, but where we let others into our family as well.

Sacramento gets this. Yes, we’re the Farm-to-Fork Capital, so it’s no surprise that Sacramento’s dinner scene is world class, but there’s more than that. It’s not just about the food. It’s about the table.

When local events company Unseen Heroes launched Gather Oak Park, a seasonal once-monthly food truck block party, they dubbed it “a take on the city as a dining table.” In many ways, Gather is like other food truck events in town, from the variety of food and treats to the live music and local craft beer. It feels different, though, and here’s why: the table. Stretching down the middle of blocked-off Third Avenue is one long communal table covered in white linen and flanked by countless folding chairs. The event, which runs each second Thursday from June through October, attracts the full scope of Oak Park enthusiasts, from families to urban hipsters to young professionals to longtime neighborhood residents. “The idea behind Gather is a community that eats together stays together,” says organizer Maritza Davis.

Communal tables are turning up all around town. The new Pushkin’s and Kru locations have incorporated large communal tables into their seating, for example. Pushkin’s owner Danny Turner notes that a counter-height communal table attracts diners who seem more open to engaging with the people around them. Kru chef Billy Ngo observes that patrons who opt to sit at the community table get to see what their neighbors are eating, and the shared space often leads to conversation about the food, which leads to encouragement to try new things.

Restaurateur Clay Nutting and chef Brad Cecchi are taking the communal table concept even further, extending their newest restaurant, Canon, into a traveling pop-up dinner party where diners eat family-style around a shared table at various locations around town—like a private basement in Old Sacramento. “In the modern style of eating and in the younger generation, dining is less about sustenance and more about a social experience,” Cecchi says. “Our goal is to inspire conversation. It’s our hope that the food is the catalyst for people who don’t know each other to talk about what’s in front of them.”

Barwest owner Trevor Shults wants the food at his community table to be even more than a conversation starter: a way to give back to the community. He has partnered with a handful of local nonprofit organizations and donates 10 percent of proceeds from the community table to their causes. “Many younger guests who have never donated to a nonprofit note that their meal at the community table is their first experience of giving,” he says.

I’m running my own motherhood marathon these days, doing my best (and failing often) to get my family of four around a table for a homemade meal like my mom did night after night. My young boys have terrible table manners and can never seem to remember anything about their day other than recess, and my husband and I succeed only occasionally in ignoring our buzzing phones during the meal. But still we gather. Still we pull up our chairs and fill our bellies while we add to our memory banks.

These shared meals, whether with family at the kitchen table or with strangers in a restaurant, are about so much more than food. There is a saying: If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence. When we break bread together, we share not just food or cordial niceties, but a sense of togetherness. If we can share a meal, a menu recommendation or an engaging conversation, what else could we share? Who else might we invite to this table? What else might we accomplish if we sit and eat together?

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