The modern-day hearth IS the kitchen table

When my husband and I realized the dream of owning our own home 15 years ago, the first thing I did was get a kitchen table.

And this wasn’t just any old table. It had to be THE table. I felt that in my bones.

I grew up in two houses. The first one was little more than a shack. The kitchen table was in the living room and it was makeshift, a piece of plywood on round logs stood up on end. But everything happened at that table. It was the only writing surface in the cabin. It was the place we made things, ate, celebrated holidays, had important talks…

When my father finally finished building “the big house” after ten years, we had a real table in a nook between three big windows next to the kitchen. The table itself was made from the heart of an ancient pie-cherry tree, loving known as “Grandmother cherry tree” to the local children. It is solid enough to dance on and continues to be the beating heart of the Farnam clan, the point to which everyone returns from distant travels and other homes, and the place friends come back to. When you sit at the old cherry-wood table, you know you’re home.

So, I knew the table had to be special. Fortunately, I had the perfect solution. An Egyptian carpenter in Prague was a friend. I commissioned him to build a table to my specifications—eight feet long and four feet wide, and yes, strong enough to dance on if the occasion should ever demand it.

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

Creative Commons image by Peter Miller

My carpenter friend fell sick and struggled to finish the table and the cabinets I had commissioned before leaving the country for a long convalescence. The result was that the table legs don’t exactly match the floor tiles underneath and the table rocks. So, for fifteen years, I’ve put folded up newspapers under one corner to keep it steady.

But otherwise it is one excellent table. I do actually stand on it regularly—to hang bundles of herbs from the ceiling. And it feels as steady as the floor, thanks to those newspapers and its massive wooden slab.

In that time my table has become a bit battered. I loved it when it glowed with a fine even finish. But since then it has been chopped by knives, hammered on by nutcrackers, drawn on and carved by children, burned by ritual candles reaching the ends of their wicks and scorched by many a hot pan. There are marks I can run my fingers over and bring back a family dinner or incident as clear as day. It has become the heart of my home as well, maybe not as heavy a draw as the great cherry-wood table far away in Oregon, but still worthy.

When we built our house, I was also adamant that we must have a wood stove of some kind, even if we planned to heat mostly through environmentally friendly electrical systems. I thought that the wood stove was the heart of a home, after all. Both of my childhood homes had stoves and in the case of the “big house” even a real stone hearth with broad lava rocks and a curved wooden mantle.

I absorbed from the culture, stories and lore the idea of the hearth as the place of greatest importance in the home, even though experience didn’t bear it out. In my first childhood home, the wood stove was an ugly brown monstrosity that lurked near the door. We never sat around it and the only time it was of primary importance was the few times that a major winter storm knocked out the power and we couldn’t pump water out of the well. We then had to cut chunks of ice and heat them in a metal laundry tub on the wood stove, because the kitchen propane stove was too small.

Even the massive and beautiful hearth in the big house of my childhood is not the heart of the family. It is technically in the center of the house and it takes up an inordinate amount of room. It is where various things are displayed and on some winter evenings people do sit in front of it. But most of the year it just gathers dust.

I see many Pagan blogs and books encouraging modern Pagans to treat their electric or propane kitchen stoves or their radiators like a hearth. We are encouraged to make a small altar near them to the hearth goddess, house spirits or ancestors and to approach work at the stove with reverence. While I don’t see any harm in that I find the comparison to the ancient symbol of the hearth to be a mismatch.

The radiators that carry central heating to the rooms of a house today are so far from the concept of a hearth that trying to treat them as such is often depressing. I’ve done so in hotel rooms and while there was nothing better to do, the concept just wasn’t there. They heat the room. For part of the year, they have a purpose. The rest of the year, they are inert. In warmer areas there is no heating system at all and more likely to be an air-conditioner.

The kitchen stove is a closer concept. At least we cook there. That is where we prepare the food to nurture our families. For many people who are the primary cook in a household, the kitchen stove can take on great importance. But the fact is that it is primarily that person who feels it. It is not actually the center of the home or family. It is part of how we process food. It isn’t meaningless, but it doesn’t have the central importance that the hearth once had.

The ancient hearth was the source of warmth. It was also the place where food was prepared. But its key importance was as the magnet that drew the family or clan together. Certainly it drew them because of the warmth and the food. But it’s most important function was as that beating heart of the basic social unit.

The Pagan concept of hospitality grows out of that. When we talk about giving weary travelers or those in need a place by the hearth, we don’t mean just that we should give them food and shelter. In so far as that practice is crucial to many cultures, it is more about taking someone into the family or community, offering them not just the physical but the social, emotional and spiritual sanctuary of the group.

To be banished from the hearth is to be truly outcast. There is an element of physical loss of sustenance and warmth but it is much more the feeling of rejection and social ostracism that make that such a terrible concept.

And that is why I say that today, the kitchen table is much more the equivalent of the hearth. That is where most people gather. It is a place connected to food and family, home and unity. In some homes the television may play a close second, if the family mostly gathers there. Still with a television, the focus is never on the family. There is never a circle around it by definition. And so, I argue that the table is the best modern equivalent we have.

The sad truth is that far too many homes don’t even have a kitchen table or any other gathering and eating place anymore. Far too many people, particularly those who find themselves trapped in poverty, lack the basic equipment and spaces to cook or eat food at home. They are forced to eat ultra-processed food and this brings with it a whole host of negative health effects. It also generally means that these same people have no place that is the equivalent of the ancient hearth, a symbol shared by every human community on earth with crucial ancestral importance.

That fact may have deep psychological and cultural results, as we not only grow further from nature but also further from the deepest roots of our sense of community and hospitality. For that reason, the hearth as a symbol gains even greater importance. Those of us who do have a kitchen table or another equivalent gathering place do well to honor that place and recognize the great privilege and fortune that having it reflects.

The next time you give thanks for a meal and thank the cooks, the farmers, the animals, the plants, the land and the ancestors, spare a thought for the table itself, the tree it is made of and the hearth it has become.