Dining by Design: Join Me for Dinner!

In conducting these interviews and reaching out to so many, the question has been turned back on me more than once, for my own views on dining and design. Though I have not had the honor to grace the covers or pages of shelter magazines like Veranda, Traditional Home or BHG and have yet to be interviewed by Oprah, my past experience related to dining is met with some smiles, laughs and interest simply because it is so difficult for many to imagine what dinner could have been like on a daily basis in my family.

You see, I am from a very large clan, the 12th child - well, actually 13th, which explains a lot, but I won't go there right now. Given that, can you imagine what it was like doing those dishes, let alone cook for all those hungry mouths? I have always considered some of my greatest strengths as a decorator stemming from the environment I grew up in. With a large family, you had to be practical, sensible and really, really, really good at making things “work”, whether that be dollars, space or food! [You should see how I pack a dishwasher!]

Yes, dinner in my family was different than most – with the exception of two other families in our neighborhood who shared the same kind of crazy. We lived at the top of the hill with 13 kids, further down the road was another family with parents as equally insane (kidding Mom, kidding!) – they had 12 and at the bottom of the hill, another couple, gluttoned for punishment, with 11 children. Is it any surprise that our surnames are Devaney, McNamara and Halloran? Suffice to say, young families weren’t clamoring to move in to our neighborhood, lest they be burdened with the same Irish-Catholic plight!

I suppose I should start by telling you where we ate, since that is one of the most common questions, after “how big was your house?” and “where did you all sleep?” Just think for a moment about what offers the greatest amount of seating flexibility while at the same time efficient space utilization? That’s right…. a picnic table. Yup, right spank in the middle of our kitchen. I guess in trying to visualize, it must seem odd, but to the neighborhood kids from smaller families and friends from school, there was nothing cooler than the fact that the Devaney’s had a picnic table in their kitchen. The Walton’s had nothing on us!

I must give my father credit, he was a master at space utilization and he had the table custom made because a standard picnic table was not big enough, nor would it hold up to the active household of eight boys and five girls. There was a lot of running around, sitting on tables – shhhh, don’t tell my mother - and at times, even a bit of jumping over and maybe even, on the table. Seriously though, for space utilization, benches are a great solution for kitchen, dining and breakfast areas and they don’t have to look as barbaric as a picnic table might sound.

Some of my fondest memories took place around our "dining table". It was truly the center of activity. My mother spent most of her day cooking it seemed, so when it came time for me to learn how to sew, shop was set up at that table. While she was preparing dinner, she could simultaneously help me with my sewing. Homework, playing board games - torturing one another - yup, it all took place there. But my true, fondest memory is the vision of my mother at that table. Her kids came first and she took delight in our enjoyment of her cooking. I remember watching her spoon tapioca from what seemed like the biggest bowl in the world to me back then, filling the cups and passing them down. Even then, I think I realized on some level that it was pretty amazing that she could prepare and serve us, over and over, and always seem to take joy from it! My mother made a home-cooked, from-scratch meal pretty much every day until I graduated from high school! Beyond impressive!

Did formal dining affairs ever take place at home?
Even though we always had some degree of casualness, due to the sheer size of the family, the picnic table was “dressed” for the holidays with a beautiful tablecloth, china and crystal. I have very fond memories of waking up on holiday mornings, my parents already up for hours preparing, to the smell of food cooking in the oven, which is the best kind of "alarm" to be awakened by. I loved seeing my parents working together as a team to put that day, that meal and that memory together for us.  
Traditional setting for a "normal-sized" family.
[My Aunt Sheila's home]
We had a formal dining room but honestly, I don’t ever recall- not even once - having dinner in that room. It was beautiful but we couldn’t all fit in there so our holiday meals were at the picnic table too.

What is one of my most memorable dining affairs I’ve been to?
I was fortunate to be invited to a private event in Newport, Rhode Island in one of the mansions there. To be honest, I don’t even recall which mansion, but I remember the "event" details of the evening well.  We were greeted at the mansion by the entire cooking staff; after their welcome, they ushered us off with a guide to give us a historical tour of the mansion, all the while passing wine and hors de oeuvres to keep our stomachs at bay. When the tour was over, we were brought in to the kitchen where the chef and his team walked us through the stages of preparation, revealing the amazing meal we would shortly enjoy.

We were finally seated in the dining area, elegantly dressed in blue and gold, and the bottomless wine started pouring. A musical trio of violinists appeared before a harpist entered and began playing in the corner. Then, as if soldiers in formation, the wait staff came out in a solid line and began serving the first course. There were many tables and I swear each table was served each course at the exact same time. It was an amazingly well-orchestrated event. Timing can be a challenge when entertaining, but they must have had rehearsals for this. It was perfection!

Do I prefer small intimate gatherings or large, lavish affairs?
I actually like both; however, I always want guests to feel relaxed and comfortable. When I got married, for example, I did a few things differently. I chose to serve a family-style dinner, to help break the ice that can sometimes fasten itself at a table of strangers. I spent a lot of time on the seating plan though too, really thinking about the personalities that I thought would really hit it off. I also gave the kids their own table - near their parents but on their own - which was as much a welcome change to the parents as it was a psych for the kids and I had individual cakes as the centerpiece on every table. Yes, if you haven’t already guessed, the kids table ate their cake before their meal! (Adults now, they still talk about it!)

My real comfort level is to create and participate in more casual dining. I don’t want people feeling like they need to sit uncomfortably straight and be overly concerned about what spoon or fork they are using. I want them to enjoy the food, the people and have fun!

What makes for a memorable, engaging dinner conversation?
People who are memorable and engaging! You don’t need to be a rock star to be interesting, just be someone that offers interest and humor to a conversation. I love to sit with people who are genuinely interesting because they enjoy many aspects of life, are light-hearted and can share conversation about things that are outside of themselves. In other words, I don’t usually want to talk about your job, I’d rather know about you! And, like most of us, I love people that can bring a little comedy to the evening!

If I could pick three people, however unlikely, I'd love to have dinner with, who would they be?
Aside from the many talented and interesting people I’ve been interviewing for this series, I will say, Cher, Mother Teresa and my grandmother - my mothers’ mother. Seems an odd trio, doesn’t it? I just love Cher; she is an amazing personality and talent. Despite her success, I feel that what we see is what we get and who are we kidding; I bet most of my readers would want to dine with her too!

I never met my grandmother but I know her to be beautiful through the part of her that lives through my mother and the way my mother has described and speaks of her. I think she was a woman before her time, effervescent, lively and open-minded. It would so exciting to learn more about her life and hear her reaction to the world we live in today!
Finally, Mother Teresa, one of the most gentle, humble and selfless humans to ever grace our planet; she could be seated at any table. I don’t think there is a soul in the world that would not have a million questions to ask her and I imagine – in my mind – that she could handle any question posed and any personality put in her path!

People, Place or Palate: which is most important?
My first inclination is to say all three; people can make up for anything - a lousy atmosphere, terrible food - but the latter two can not make up for lousy dinner dates, so I guess my final answer leans toward "people".

As far as palate is concerned though, darn it, there better be salt on the table and real butter. I know salt is unhealthy and one may think they have appropriately seasoned their food but “to each is own”, let them have salt if they desire. And nothing turns me off more than sitting for dinner and finding margarine on the table. It makes me question the whole meal. Seriously.

As far as place, atmosphere does add to experience, as my most memorable experience above suggests so well. I do appreciate ingenuity and thought that goes in to creating dining spaces that people feel good in and experiences that people want to remember. I hope I have done that myself for guests in my own home.

Do you have a favorite recipe that makes its way into many of your personal gatherings?
Yummy Bars! They are the only recipe I don't share. Seriously, I've never, ever known anyone else to make them, aside from one sister, so I make them every holiday season and people are drooling waiting for them. I did finally relinquish the recipe to one of my nieces just last year but I made her sign a contract of confidentiality - ha, ha. I really did!!

Is dessert required?
You bet! Isn't that really the purpose of dinner – to perform as opening act for dessert?

There we have it. I hope you enjoyed reading my experiences and thoughts on dining and design. I hope you will join us again next week, as we continue this series with another surprise featured guest you will love!

Bon Apetit ~ Sarah
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