The Sacred Table
The Sacred Table
I grew up in an Italian family in a predominantly Italian community in the western suburbs of Chicago. I learned how the pillars of my ethnic heritage are open hearts, open doors, warm hospitality, and the sacredness of the table.
My grandparents emigrated to America in the 1920’s. My maternal grandmother, my Nonna Pierina, came to faith in Christ when an Italian friend who was a believer invited her to a prayer meeting in her home. Nonna had 3 daughters; the middle one was my mother, Anna.
It was the depression, and times were hard. My mother told me of ways they employed to stretch a meal, which were mainly meatless and pasta- or risotto- based—using economical and accessible ingredients. But my Nonna was an excellent cook, a skill she learned at her mother’s side in Italy, where the ingredients were both abundant and fresh from their farm. In an Italian family, food is love, so she seemed genetically compelled to use this experience to assure that, even though not expensive, the meals she served her family were delicious. She had a wonderful herb and vegetable garden, raised chickens and, as my mother put it, was a master at making something from nothing.
Nonna would also share whatever they had; their home was on a busy main thoroughfare and scores of hungry homeless men showed up at her door at mealtimes. She was overjoyed to take them in, because it gave her a chance to tell them about Jesus and pray for them. Her table became a sacred place of sharing the Gospel as she welcomed strangers.
In turn, my mother started very early learning the art of Italian cooking. She remembered having to stand on a stool to make bread at the age of 5. She became a great cook in her own right and her Italian food was superb And she also embraced her ethnic predisposition to desire that her table be a sacred place, as if in her DNA. My fondest memories are centered on her in the kitchen.
Growing up, I remember our home being filled with guests. My mother was hospitality personified. We were part of a small Italian church; at that time, most churches had a parsonage, but ours didn’t. Since we lived just a block and a half away, our home became the place where missionaries, evangelists and visiting speakers from far away places came for lodging and meals. (I vividly remember how honored my parents were when Dr. Hudson Armerding, President of Wheaton College at the time, enjoyed my mother’s homemade ravioli with red “gravy” in our home.) This made for very rich conversations around our table; hearing all their amazing stories exposed me to foreign cultures, sparked in me a life-long passion for travel abroad, and taught me the beauty of prayer for the nations. The table became a sacred place of sharing how God was at work around the globe.
Our home wasn’t large, but that didn’t stop my mother. She found a way to make sure everyone was comfortable and, with her continuous invitation throughout the meal to “Mangia! Mangia!” they left full to the brim with simple, yet fabulous Italian food. Her table was never anything very fancy—she did use her white tablecloths, china, crystal, silverware and cloth napkins—but she just kept adding leaves to the table or set up a “card table” in the living room for more and kept it simple. The focus was not on impressing, but on welcoming. Her servant’s heart, and her love of Jesus—not her décor—is what came through. Everyone was made to feel like family. She was known as Mama Mascetti to my friends.
A favorite memory, and standing joke among my three siblings and me, is that we’d sit down to our family dinner (which was a nightly sacred time of connection) and when my father would begin to pray, “Dear Heavenly Fa—“ KNOCK-KNOCK -KNOCK! Someone with no family, lonely, or down on their luck and hungry for a good meal, with impeccable timing, would be at the door. Mom, of course, had cooked way more than we needed, which is the Italian way, so we slid over and laid a place setting for whoever it was that was joining us. Our table was a sacred place for the ministry of caring.
It was a time of neighbors and friends coming in and out without an invitation. I wish I had a dollar for every time I came home from school and there would be a woman in tears sitting at our kitchen table over coffee and fresh-baked crusty bread or biscotti, my mother listening with a sympathetic ear, comforting and guiding—a sacred place for the ministry of healing of the brokenhearted. She always made time for people, amidst her busy life with four children and caring for my Nonna, who was ill with ongoing health issues for years, along with her dedication as a Sunday school teacher —non-stop since her teen years—and other church involvements. No one was ever made to feel that they were an interruption. She was a perpetual room mom for the four of us, and always headed up the PTA food committee. She joked later about all those specialty Jell-O molds she made, with her spread-out children age-wise in grade school for twenty-five years. After we were all in school, she worked as the assistant to the principal of a large grade school, and every year cooked a huge spaghetti and meatballs dinner for the entire staff. Her favorite way to serve the church was to cook for the whole congregation, where the tables groaning with her Italian food became holy places of community.
In her later years as a widow, her table in her townhouse continued to be a blessing to her neighbors. She, of course, though only needing to cook and bake for one, continued to make family-sized meals. She made it a ministry by sharing covered dishes to the elderly living close to her who weren’t in the greatest health and so appreciated it. It gave her a chance to encourage them, share her faith and invite them to church…the mobile sacred table.
This is the way in which I was raised. My legacy is hospitality. My Italian heart feels drawn to it. The Bible presents it as a command, not a suggestion, and we see clearly how Jesus valued breaking bread with others.
Fast-forward to me in my own home. I’m fortunate to have a husband who shares my enthusiasm for opening our door to groups large and small—from special celebrations to neighborhood Bible studies to my monthly book club, still going strong for almost twenty-two years. This wasn’t his experience growing up, but it brings him as much joy as it brings me, and he’s a great partner in the undertakings. He “knows the drill.” His parents owned several bakeries, so he’s a pro at baking and finds it fulfilling and relaxing. Every New Years Eve, his warm homemade doughnuts are a highlight to our family and friends.
In addition to being cento per cento (100 percent) Italian, I’m also an interior designer, and an avid cook and baker, so it’s been a struggle for me to keep it simple. I’ve read way too many Martha Stewart magazines. After my earlier married years, my pattern being the compulsion to prepare exhaustively for my guests, what I have had to learn is to strike the balance between making them feel welcome and special, and not overdoing it. The joy is in the connections, not in the creativity—an act of service rather than seeking approval.
Entertaining in America has, thankfully, become much more casual in recent years, so, while I will never be a fan of serving on paper goods, I’ve gradually tapered off from the fanciness and have found freedom from the expectations I’ve had for myself about how perfect things must be. I’ve created a file of menus that are simpler, yet pleasing—foolproof, tried and true recipes (some passed down from my Nonna’s mother) that can be made ahead so I’m not mostly in the kitchen, but mostly interacting with my guests. And I’ve looked for ways to set a much less stuffy table, where the feeling is relaxed. I’ve decided it’s better to do it simpler and more often, rather than allowing it to be so overwhelming with the preparations that I don’t want to do it very much. Christmas Eve is my one exception, when I pull out all the stops and keep the Italian tradition of a fish-focused feast alive for my immediate and extended family, and to honor my ethnic roots.
What I miss most about being an empty nester is, of course, our son being away at college, but also that our home is no longer a gathering place for his friend when our home was filled with laughter and activity. I loved all those Saturday mornings, when I wasn’t sure how many sleepy bodies would emerge for breakfast, and the mountains of pancakes we served them.
In my visits to Italy, I’ve seen where our culture’s affinity to the importance of the table comes from. We’ve had meals there—especially with relatives on the family farm and at a cousin’s trattoria in Rome—that are hours long, with plenty of time for conversation between courses. It’s an event. The table is the sacred place where love is expressed in the abundance of the simple and fresh cuisine. If there’s not a lot of leftovers, you didn’t make enough. After dinner, Italians have la passegiata, an evening stroll to meet neighbors, walk in the piazza and greet townspeople. I lament the lack of connection with our neighbors that has become the norm for many of us here in America. Being friendly while walking the dog and sitting on the park bench on our front lawn and engaging with our neighbors in the evening is our way of keeping this tradition alive.
The Italian way is an open door. People don’t need an invitation to visit. And it’s the Italian way to always—always—serve something to eat and drink. It’s the first order of business when someone arrives, so I keep a treat or two in the pantry for just such occasions. You enter and come right to the table—the sacred space for sharing life.
So I am a big proponent of a return to the open door policy we Italians are traditionally so fond of. I want our home to be a place where people feel free to stop by anytime—a warm and safe place of ministry and openness. We seem to have lost this wonderful way of spontaneous connecting.
I also lament that inviting friends over for dinner has been replaced most often by meeting in a restaurant. And who has girlfriends over for lunch anymore? (When I see all those vintage “luncheon sets”—clear glass plates with a place for a cup on the side—that must be in every resale shop in America, it reminds me of how well-used my mother’s were.) Everyone is busy, I know. But I think about how full my mother’s life was, and without many of the conveniences and technology we enjoy now, and she found a way. There’s something very holy about having each other over to gather at our own tables and share life. I think we’ve lost a lot with this being largely a thing of the past in our culture.
Everything doesn’t have to be perfect in my home for it to be the perfect place to share God’s love. Hospitality isn’t about your house—it’s about your heart.
If I am tempted to overdo, or to too often suggest we pick a restaurant and make a reservation with friends, I remember my Nonna, whose food and home were far from fancy, but whose table was used for the purpose of encouraging, embracing those in need and sharing the Gospel—even if one person at a time. And I remember my mother, whose whole life spoke of her gift of warm hospitality, and whose table was always such a life-giving, sacred space of caring.
It is, after all, the Italian way.