My Grandmother’s Table

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

It probably happens a couple of times a month. I’m puttering around the house on a Tuesday morning, wiping off my tabletop from the previous night’s red bean dinner, and I’ll spot a circular purple wine stain on the woodgrain surface.

I look at the ring, shake my head and think the same thing every time: “If Mamma ever saw this table, she’d kill me.”

My grandmother was a fierce believer in thick vinyl place mats in exactly the way that I am not. As a way to set a proper table. As a way to “protect the table’s finish.” As a pre-meal civilizing ritual. As a sign that it’s time to be somewhat polite.

I can almost feel the stern reproach and slightly sheepish feeling of “being fussed at” as I address the task at hand. A quick wipe doesn’t quite get the job done, so I take the scrubber side of a sponge and apply a little elbow grease. With each pass of the scrubber, the wine fades a bit, eventually leaving a barely visible ghost ring that’s somewhat camouflaged against the durable faux woodgrain.

Over the 17 years I’ve had this table in my various homes, I’ve “filled the table” with a dozen or so friends at least once a week (sometimes three or four times a week during colder months). Gatherings are always casual — a simple menu (red beans, gumbo) served in stoneware bowls, with hot skillet cornbread in the center of the table, flanked by beer bottles, wine glasses and an enchanting, ’30s era Duraglas water decanter (for hydration purposes). Equally casual and chaotic, the table lends itself to simple cooking, spirited conversations and late-night storytelling.

My friends consider the oversized colonial-style oval to be “Pableaux’s table,” but to me and most of my extended family, it’ll always be “Lorelle’s kitchen table” and one of the truly magical places in the world.

In its previous life, the table lived in my grandmother’s kitchen near the University Lakes in Baton Rouge, and acted as the undeniable heart of my mother’s far-flung extended family. My mother was born the second oldest of eight kids — six girls, two boys — in a family that maintained a tight emotional orbit around their parents and childhood home, no matter their geographical distance.

The house on Morning Glory Avenue was the family’s touchstone, with Lorelle’s kitchen table its spiritual center. The kitchen — spacious, windows on three sides, linoleum floors, “newly renovated” in the late 1950s — was the default family gathering spot with its defining feature, the nine-foot, colonial-style table, a most welcome high-traffic zone. As a kid, to me the kitchen seemed like a Great Hall of Feasting, with the stovetop just steps away and the chance to learn about food and family always there (if you were paying attention).

Lorelle’s kitchen was the non-negotiable first stop for visitors to “Morning Glory” — whether it was a pre-planned mealtime stopover for pork chops or garlic-spiked roast beef (the family’s standard Welcome Home meal), a morning or afternoon cup of thick black coffee from the French drip pot, or a little snack of summer tomato cut into slabs and dusted with a little salt and pepper. Enter the kitchen outside the traditional three-meal structure and you were in for one of Mamma’s “visits” — a rapid-fire conversation heavy on family stories, her concerns for all involved and a little something to eat, of course. Never content for people to sit around and not eat, she’d always steer visitors to a seat at the table and rummage around in the fridge with her constant refrain, “Let me see what I have in here…”

Minutes later, she’d have a perfect little something set up in front of you both. Leftover biscuits with fig preserves in the late morning, perhaps an improvised meat-and-three (roast, rice, gravy, petit pois peas, smothered summer squash) if you couldn’t stay till supper. And if relatives were coming in from the road, it was going to be a production, with the trusty table filled to the groaning point.

When she asked the magic question, “Are you hungry?” guests learned quickly that “No” was not an appropriate answer, and that polite deference would get them nowhere. “Yes, ma’am” was your starting point, and you negotiated up or down from there.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Lorelle Seal Hebert, used that table as her workaday social parlor and activity room. A zaftig woman from North Louisiana’s Catahoula Parish, she acted as the unquestioned head of a fast-talking, bighearted matriarchy, and her kitchen was her headquarters.

If you were a true friend of the family, you knew better than to ring the front doorbell, but instead went around back and rapped on the heavy, spring-loaded screen door. If Mamma wasn’t in the kitchen already, talking on the telephone or enjoying a bit of quiet between visitors, she’d pop into view seconds after your knock, and after a big, often misty hug, she’d sit you down and get you a little something.

It was a ritual for friends and family alike — if you were there for a visit of any length, you spent a lotof it in that kitchen. Part of it was pure logistics — the long Formica® top was like an airport runway. Even if it was clear at the moment (and it rarely was), there was always another inbound flight an hour or so away. As a result, the kitchen always hummed with some kind of family activity.

As kids, we’d hear her and my grandfather Leon (Papá) rattling around the kitchen, preparing for the day well before sunup. In gown and robe, Mamma would roll out and cut biscuits, and fry pans full of bacon and patty sausage. Or, on special occasions, Papá would whip up feather-light pain perdu before heading in to work. He’d return to his assigned seat for most meals — at the head of the table, his back to the stove — at a time when “eating out” was a particular luxury. Papá brought a certain authoritarian formality and “library quiet” to the table. To compensate, Mamma would keep talking, unspooling her sprawling, multilayered yet mundane stories with a complexity that bordered on the biblical.
From the pre-dawn coffee shuffles to the evening gin rummy games after supper cleanup, the family more or less lived in Lorelle’s kitchen, which she ran in her own orderly way. Whenever family was in town, she knew her showtimes — breakfast, lunch and supper — and ran the room like a machine with however many helpers happened to be around. With the sprawling network of traveling cousins, we watched in wonder as our mothers became dutiful daughters once they crossed the threshold of Morning Glory. We slowly realized that our mothers called Mamma “Mama” (a slight musical difference that perked up the ear) and worked in that kitchen like they’d been born to it (which of course, they had). And that once we were in that kitchen, we were one big family — with the rights and responsibilities thereof. Over the years, we watched Mamma and “her girls” cook and joke, tell endless stories, drink coffee and do full holiday baking production on the kitchen tabletop (between regularly scheduled meals).

If grandkids wanted to hang out in the kitchen (and I often did), they’d be ordered to “make yourself useful” — a busywork category that contained any simple, low-stakes task designed to keep a high-energy child busy enough to not break anything. Favorites included fetching black-eyed peas from the linen pillowcase in the outside freezer and snapping the stems from metric tons of garden string beans to setting the table or wiping down the dreaded 1970s vinyl place mats before we could thunder across the house to watch TV. Turns out that you can learn a lot by making yourself useful…

After both my grandparents passed away and Morning Glory was sold, the kitchen table migrated to my first New Orleans apartment. I got the idea that “filling the table” once a week was the best way to honor the relic’s high-traffic history. Gather a bunch of folks for a simple meal, don’t be too precious about it, be a little bossy if you have to. I think Lorelle would (mostly) approve.

I never did like the place mats all that much — or setting the table, for that matter — so (likely much to Mamma’s chagrin) I never bother. On crowded red bean nights, I put a roll of paper towels near the cornbread skillet, toss a dozen tablespoons on the Formica and propose a toast of welcome.

The energy usually feels about right for a casual weeknight supper. Turns out that on most nights, 10 or so random friends with a few bottles of wine pretty closely mimic a mile-long table full of Hebert grandkids telling jokes and operating just a hair short of what we’d consider “company manners.”

And so Lorelle’s table — the artifact — has become mine, and I run my kitchen table mostly as she ran hers. As I see my friends, guests and family eat, laugh and talk way to loud, I can’t help but think that she might approve of the spiritual adaptation, even if it is a little heavy on the wine and light on the place mats.

So a couple of times a month, during the Tuesday morning cleanup, I see a little ring, and I let Mamma haunt me just a teeny bit. I indulge myself in a small smile, then get to scrubbing…