Vocabulary sections in beginners’ French books always featured La Maison. Pupils were delighted to learn la chambre, la cuisine, le salon and la salle de bain. The phrase ‘la salle à manger’ often caused consternation. “Do you mean the kitchen?”. “A special room for meals?”. Nothing in the culture of the more disadvantaged pupils had informed them that such a thing existed. More middle class individuals were smugly aware of dining rooms. Local authorities never gave thir tenants the comfort of a dining room.
The houses in my area, built in the 1930s, all had dining rooms. But something bizarre has been happening in recent years. Great extended kitchens with island units and living spaces have been added on to the rear of many houses. This is all to the good as suburban kitchens of the nineteen thirties were poky affairs where one could not swing the proverbial cat. We have all seen Dermot Bannon’s programme Room to Improve where he supervises the installation of a great glass box kitchen/diner/living room at the rear of the house and light floods in from every side. (Who cleans all that glass I ask myself). The problem is that all this bannonisation is being accompanied by the suppression of the traditional dining room. I have noticed that younger neighbours have turned the dining room into what is called a ‘playroom’ which has been filled with plastic toys in primary colours. I have seen dining rooms turned into bedrooms and kitchens. Sometimes the dining room just becomes a place to store stuff. We now live in a world where people actually make a boast of the fact that they are untidy. There is always someone on twitter assuring us that people with tidy houses are boring people. I suppose it comforts them to believe this.
Millennials must now eat Christmas dinner in the big kitchen/diner in full view of the cooking debris. How festive is that? Culinary disasters can no longer be concealed from guests. They are there witnessing the ineptitude and embarrassment of the cook if she or he drops the hot dish en route from the oven. There are those who will argue that the dining room was seldom used except at Christmas and for guests. I think not. It was often the room which housed the piano, where children could practise their instrument away from the kitchen din. The dining table was often the place of study. The project did not need to be cleared away at mealtimes. There have even been committee meetings in our dining room. I can’t imagine that happening in the kitchen. I found when the offspring left home and the piano was unused it gave an excuse to install an extra bookcase. The dining room cum library is a splendid idea. It can serve as an oasis of calm.
We pensioners are constantly being told we should downsize. Downsize yourself. You are not getting my dining room. What would become of grandmother’s table in a bannonised world? I calculate that at least three generations have done homework around it. Visitors from far and near have been entertained around it for more than a century. It would look out of place in a glass box kitchen. There is room for both a kitchen table and a dining table in our world surely.
Every winter I look forward to the Christmas days in the dining room. The kitchen mess is out of sight. Candles are lit. Linen tablecloths are ironed. Christmas is meant to be special. None of your paper napkins thank you. No plastic in sight. We strive for what elegance we can. Why go downmarket when it is so easy to have a bit of style? Let us not kill off the dining room. It is the mark of civilisation.