It all started, I suppose, with an article in The New York Times about a vacation home in Nova Scotia. It wasn’t a home we’d ever build, even in our dreams, because to me, it seems strange to have your dream life more than 3,000 miles away from your real life. Even so, the inside was so light, and so welcoming to crowds despite its small size, that it got us thinking. We loved its long, slender, people-friendly eating space. We loved the built-in bench that ran along one entire wall of the living room. Since we’re predisposed to feeding crowds of people quite regularly, and usually on short notice, we thought, wouldn’t it make sense for us to have a big, hefty, crowd-loving dining table, instead of a formal, ill-fitting, accidentally inherited one?
And so early this fall, armed with advice garnered while writing a story on how the Seattle restaurateurs behind Bastille and Poquitos and Caffe Fiore (and soon Macleod’s) use reclaimed materials, my husband and I set out to convince a large piece of wood that it wanted to be our a new dining room table.
First, we found a church pew. It’s evidently a remnant from an old Episcopalian building in Portland, Oregon, one that spent the last 30 years in a garage in Kirkland, Washington. It made its way to our house on a trailer that only came unhitched once, complete with a pre-communion gum stash, but lacking hymnals. It’s nine feet long, so we settled on a seven-foot table.
Later, at Earthwise, a reclaimed building materials shop south of downtown Seattle, we found a 14-foot-long cedar board leaning up against the outside of the building nonchalantly, almost modeling, as if it knew just how we’d ooh and ahhh at it. It was a bear of a thing, and as we brought it home, our ski rack bent and cursing, we wondered whether we’d done the right thing. It had clearly spent the majority of its life outdoors, and even though my husband, a hobby woodworker, had A Vision, I couldn’t see it. He disappeared into his shop, about once a week all fall, to sand and chisel and patch and epoxy and finish. I made him coffee, and found great little wooden chairs at a consignment shop in Walla Walla, and hoped for the best.
The day before our Thanksgiving crowd of 20 started arriving, friends helped us assemble the table in the living room. (It’s bound by metal rigging that emits a high-pitched hum if you pound the table in just the right place.) I slapped burlap coffee sacks on top of the girly turquoise fabric the chairs had come with, and suddenly, instead of a dining area, we had a gathering space.
I’d be willing to bet that if I poured carefully, I could fit a full cup of liquid into the cracks and crevices still undulating across this table. If you’re one for symmetry, it’s imperfect. Its two halves are mismatched in both thickness and shape, and now, with my computer high-centered on its highest section, it rocks back and forth a little as I type. I’ll have to be careful not to wear too much fine silk, because the edges are still a bit raw in places. We may have to floss food out of the center. But there are two full quarts of epoxy in this thing, making cracks that once went straight through the wood perfectly impervious to anything one can see with the naked eye. And filled with grandmas and grandpas, sitting hip by hip in the same place filled the hour before by scribbling toddlers, it has somehow, with its mere presence, made our house more of a home.
We had a lovely Thanksgiving week. Despite the conditions on Snoqualmie pass, everyone eventually arrived. The cousin who stayed with us cooked and stirred and scrubbed more than any guest ever has (although I won’t say should, because I loved it). The other cousin made real southern biscuits, the kind you can pull apart layer by layer, and I ate them, gluten and all, and didn’t notice a thing. (That’s another story.) My brother brought a fresh venison roast. My parents did dishes and dishes and dishes. We made two giant meals in my own house, and held Thanksgiving itself at my in-laws’, which meant that the work was spread out enough that I could still taste the food by the time it hit my plate.
And now that everyone’s gone, this new table still works. My sister, who has been traveling the world (literally) for months, is here staying with us for a bit. When she wakes up, we’ll sit here together, dappled by the rare Seattle sunlight, with my recipes and her photos and our dueling coffee cups, and we’ll just be family. As the day wears on, we’ll eat split pea soup made with the bone of the ham she roasted to keep the turkey company. The empty bowls will sit on the table, I’m sure, like they did so often this past week, just resting, as if they themselves wanted a feel for it, too.
Then, as the days wear and tear on it, the table will get dinged and stained and scratched and abused, and slowly, year by year, it will become perfect. I can’t wait.
Split Pea Soup with Dill and Cardamom (PDF)
Based on a recipe from my forthcoming cookbook, Pike Place Market Recipes (Sasquatch 2012), which is itself based on a verbal recipe from the ladies at the counter at Bavarian Meats in the Pike Place Market that uses their smoked ham, this soup blends the earthiness of split peas and leftover ham bone with enough dried dill and cardamom for intrigue, but not so much they take over the soup. You can puree it before stirring the ham pieces back in, if you prefer.
Time: 40 minutes active time
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 (2-pound) ham hock, or meaty bone from a holiday ham
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon dried dill
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 pound dried split peas
1/4 cup cream or half and half (optional)
Heat a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, then the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Add the carrots, celery, and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the ham hock, broth, water, bay leaf, dill, cardamom, and split peas, stir, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a bare simmer until the peas are soft and the meat falls off the bone, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove the bay leaf.
Transfer the ham to a cutting board and set aside until cool enough to handle. Finely chop the meat, discarding the bones and any fatty parts, and add it to the soup. Add additional water, if necessary, to thin the soup to your desired consistency, and rewarm over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper (you won’t need much salt because the meat is usually salty enough), stir in the cream, and serve hot.