Growing up as a girl in Africa I was inspired by food and hospitality experiences that went well beyond my North American roots. Always visitors were welcome, anytime. In fact, you were to have an extra plate of food for a visitor who could appear. As a guest, even if you’ve already eaten, you must not offend, but eat again and especially share hot steamy milky chai (tea). So delicious! I didn’t feel like a guest, but a member of the family. I would watch in fascination as my Kenyan friends prepared food for family over an open fire, nyama choma (meat stew), ugali of which you would pull off a piece, form an indentation with your thumb and use the ugali “spoon” to scoop up the stew, as well as sukumu wiki (greens and tomatoes), and chappatis. When a guest comes the hosts would eagerly leave all other duties just to sit and indulge in lengthy conversation… We would sit by lantern light and talk in the mud hut with a thatched or corrugated tin roof, as the night sky streaked with colour in the setting sun. And before we left, our hosts would press us to take a gift home with us, usually fresh fruit or garden produce. To this day I don’t think I realized the depth of the sacrificial love and kindness of those dear childhood friends. I learned so much that impacts me to this day.
As Kenyan Chef Kiran Jethwa says, “Many Gujarati people came to East Africa in colonial times and their influence can definitely be seen in Kenyan food, particularly with the use of fresh chili and coriander.” A neighbourhood Indian friend would invite me to her home. I was fascinated that any time of day there was beautifully laid out on a colourful fabric on the floor a display of chutneys, chappatis, curries like korma or vindaloo, dal, and samosas, everything made fresh that day, along with fruits like local mangos and the sweet little gulab jamun dessert balls. We would sit cross-legged on the floor and eat with our hands, savoring flavors, sucking our fingers, and while eating I would admire the women’s lovely draped saris, with elegant bodices that showed their midriff, something I was never allowed to do. My starched collared shirts had to be tucked tightly into my school uniform skirt.
At home when my Mom taught me to set the table early when I was only five, there was precision to a place setting. It was the table knife with the sharp side carefully turned toward the plate so no one would cut themselves, followed by the spoon. On the left you lined up first the dinner fork, and then a smaller salad fork to the left of that. At the top of the plate was your dessert fork facing right and the dessert teaspoon on top facing left. I learned that side plates for dinner rolls were left, glassware was top right, and below right was your teacup and saucer. Mom also taught me that gracious conversation was just as important as how you set the table, like the proverb she quoted, “The right word spoken at the right time, is as beautiful as gold apples in a silver bowl” (Proverbs 25:11)
But although both my beautiful mother Fern who had a Quaker background from Connecticut, and later my elegant mother-in-law Erika whose family emigrated from Germany to Canada, were precise with place settings for any family dinner, it was never a chore to set the table. It was magic. There was light and warmth in their eyes as these women I revere, took out their best china, carefully folded linen napkins that had been washed and ironed, added a sparkling napkin ring, tucked around the table bowls of dried nuts and fruits, and homemade jellies and pickles in little crystal dishes. In the table centre would be a floral bouquet accent and candles for sparkling light. All this setting made for a lot of clearing after dinner, but the preparations were inspired to create a backdrop for the gathering of people who would come. Around the table, time would stop. There would be shared stories, laughter till tears, burdens would be lifted, ideas and inspiration would be gathered, life was really lived, because it was remembered and celebrated with people you cared about, or wanted to get to know better!
All these years later, sometimes at our family dinners, even with all the cutlery available, I will still without realizing what I’m doing, find myself drawn to leave the table and sit on a nearby couch, my legs crossed. I will use my fingers to feel the food’s texture and savour its flavors (after having washed and sanitized my hands of course). As I savour and eat absentmindedly, I’ll watch the family interactions around the dining table and smile, revelling in the warmth glowing in my heart. Even in a pandemic, our table may be limited to ten, but there is so much to celebrate.
All these many years past those childhood experiences, now my family too live in a world filled with hospitality. My husband Erik, and his Dad Harry, built our family country inn. My mother-in-law Erika and I decorated it. For the past eleven plus years, Nestleton Waters Inn has hosted many guests who gather with families and friends to celebrate special occasions, like weddings, anniversaries, 90th birthdays, and of course the holidays too! Always there are place settings…
A part of our inn packages is helping the hosts select their preferred place settings, the type of fabric of the linens for the tables, satin’s, pinch pleats, damasks, the colours, like blush or champagne, the type of napkin and its fold. Will there be chargers, napkin rings, name cards, favour toppers? There could be elegant centrepieces, candles, lanterns. There’s so much detail set up for each table! After the event, guests are often urged before they leave from a festive feast, to take the floral centrepiece with them, and take a favour! Sometimes we use baby trees from a local tree farm as favours, their fledgling root bases wrapped in burlap and tied with ribbon. Or sometimes a host will make their own jars of homemade jelly. One groom even created a personalized wooden cookie for each guest, with their name burnt into the wood and an art design of something they loved, like baking or dancing.
What the hosts are really doing, is showing love. They’re creating a magical world especially prepared for their guests to walk into, where they will learn significant preparations were made to let them know they are valued and important; that for a moment in time where a special occasion is celebrated, they were invited and welcomed to join in, to help slow down time, to celebrate together. Photographers and Videographers will try to capture it, phone cameras will try to capture it. Hopefully our hearts will capture it.
Long after the guests have left, and diligent staff stay late to tidy and box dishes and cutlery that crews from rental companies will pick up later, I will often sit in my basement inn apartment. As stars twinkle out my window, I’ll write a poem that will be shared with the hosts and friends on social media. Usually the poem is short, just a few stanzas, because I’m tired… ha ha.
Why write a poem? It’s to remember. Because special occasion place settings are more than cutlery shots to be captured by cameras… I need to “taste” my memories and savour… As I write the poems, it’s my own way of capturing the moments, the highlights of what I saw that day… Love.
“I watched you get married, say pledges, and vows,
And all of your guests and your family, said wows!
For this was the moment you’d all waited for,
To be with the one that you love and adore.
Your tables were set, and the candles alight.
You feasted and toasted late into the night.
And although was no dancing (pandemic you see),
Our hearts hold forever, memories under marquee.”
So this holiday, when you create your own magic, whatever your preparations and place settings look like, whatever type of food you serve, take a few moments to remember the special people in your life who have shown you hospitality and kindness. In their honour, why not make new memories? May your place settings be filled with love. Here’s to your love forever!
From Deborah, and all your friends, At Nestleton Waters Inn xo