Gather Round: Skye McAlpine
Food writer and author Skye McAlpine on the joy of feasting, togetherRead more
As the author of A Table for Friends, food writer Skye McAlpine’s world centres on bringing people together to enjoy a bountiful feast. Here she reflects on the rituals of mealtimes, shared dining space, and what it means to have a seat at the table.
At the heart of our kitchen is an old, wooden table. It’s not that special, other than the occasional jug of pretty flowers which might sit upon it, or the sunny yellow gingham tablecloth that I drape over it when I want to change the mood of the room. But over the years, the table has become central to our lives; where we eat, but also where we spend most of our time as a family. It’s where our eldest, Aeneas, does his homework, where I wrap Christmas presents, and where we all cluster together around our old scrabble board with mugs of hot tea on rainy Sunday afternoons. It’s where weekend lunches linger lazily on into dinner and long past the boys’ bedtime. Most importantly, it’s where I’ve come to forge many new friendships, that, with time spent together (mostly sitting at said table) have become treasured ‘old’ friendships.
I grew up in a family who, when it came to mealtimes, lived by the ‘more the merrier’ philosophy. My parents ran an open kitchen and always had friends over - it was almost never just the three of us for lunch or for dinner. We moved from London to Italy when I was six, and for longer than I can remember, food and the ritual of sitting down to meals together has been hugely important. In some ways, I now understand that my parents’ attitude to food and hosting; their constant gathering of people was a way of building a family and creating a home in a place that was foreign and unfamiliar. I inherited this love of feeding friends and became the kind of person who believes that food tastes best when shared with others. And so, I learned to cook.
The table has become central to our lives; where we eat, but also where we spend most of our time as a family.
When it comes to cooking, I always keep it very simple - mostly because it enables me to cook often and for many. And perhaps because I am greedy, my menus focus on the food I love to eat: plump, buttery roast chicken with crisp, salty skin, fresh and light green salads with moreish peppery vinaigrette (the sort that takes moments to throw together, but will transform even the saddest bag of leaves into something truly quite exquisite), baked fruit, golden roast potatoes, and bowls of chopped juicy tomatoes dripping in grassy olive oil. This food is low effort and simple to make (if I can cook it, you most definitely can!) - and yet it’s exactly the kind of food we all want to eat. For me, it’s all about keeping things relaxed and fun: I want to enjoy cooking for friends - it should never feel like work.
I don’t do starters, or the kind of fancy fussy food you might expect find in a restaurant. Instead I do big plates of colourful food; generous and inviting so everyone can tuck in and help themselves. I always serve pudding (I’ll be honest, sometimes shop bought) because I have a sweet tooth, and I have found that dinner feels celebratory when there is cake, jelly or ice cream involved. I love flowers, of course, but even more I love to decorate the table with overflowing vivid and bountiful bowls of fruit and loaves of bread. Plus, heaps of flickering candles, because life looks more infinitely more glamorous. I have no fixed idea that this is the only or even the correct way to host a party, but it is the simplest, most rewarding and the very best way I have found.
The past few months have given me pause to reflect in many ways and about many things. With time in quarantine, I have reassessed much of what in my life I had previously believed to be essential - and I have let it go. But my friends, our lunches and dinners together, those happy memories - I hold on to tighter now than ever. More than before I understand now what a pleasure and a privilege it is to cook for and be in the same space with the people you love – and how priceless that is.