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Tales From the Kids’ Table

Love it or loathe it, the kids’ table constitutes a formative component of most of our collective childhoods. Remember the phone books used as booster seats? The endless helpings of mashed potatoes? The age-inappropriate jokes? Given the season is nigh for cramming relatives into your home—waaaaay more relatives than can be considered sane, and for reasons entirely unrelated to the fire code—we asked you for recollections about what exactly transpired around that wobbly little table. The stories and opinions you shared in no-holds-barred, self-righteous, and self-deprecating fashion alternately amused, charmed, and surprised us so, we couldn’t not share. And we’d loooove to do the same with countless more snapshots and tales. Consider it a tell and show of sorts—you tell, we show. First, bookmark this page. Then, on Thanksgiving, pass it around the table. Mind you, we’re not proponents of segregating kids. We’re merely acknowledging a reality—one that many find memorable, and in a good way. So go on, let us know in a comment below.—Renee Schettler Rossi

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When I was a kid, our family gatherings were so unwieldy, Thanksgiving would often mean the adults’ table started in my godmother or grandmother’s kitchen and ended up in the living room, where the kids’ table held sway. We kids would be lined up at long, mismatched tables, and my mother and aunts would crouch down beside us, the seams of their dresses screaming over the expanse of their ample thighs, and offer up bowls, platters, and dishes for our perusal and approval. That’s power to a six-year-old.David Leite, publisher of Leite’s Culinaria

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I belong to the generation of the kids’ table. I think the notion of the kids’ table in some families is that of sequestering or segregating, both growing up and today, but back then it was a necessity, practically speaking. In the ’60s, when I was growing up, people had larger families. I had four cousins on my father side and two on my mothers’ side, and we always had friends over for Thanksgiving. It was a pretty big production. The eight or nine kids were always eating in the kitchen, which was just inside the dining room, and we preferred it that way. It was our domain.

There was always trouble at the kids’ table. We were in the kitchen, so we would sneak dessert and all sorts of things. I was the youngest of all the Zimmern cousins, so I was the one they would convince to do all sorts of things. One year my cousin gave me a large glass of what he told me was ginger ale, and I remember being very thirsty and so I chugged it. But it was actually Champagne. I remember singing a whole lot of songs for the adults, and then waking up the next morning in my bed.

We usually got served first; I didn’t understand why at the time. But now I know it’s the easiest way. The meal is always delayed, and the kids are always amped up for the holiday. My son eats at the kitchen table with his friends and cousins on Thanksgiving, and they feel like mini adults, like it’s their freedom day. It empowers them in a sense. They love being at the kids’ table. And I know he loves that I’m not knocking the legs of his chair, reminding him to keep his elbows off the table.—Andrew Zimmern, a three-time James Beard award-winning TV personality, chef, writer, and host of the weekly podcast Go Fork Yourself

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I am allowed to sit at the adults’ table due to my age, but I still love sitting with the kids at their table. Oh, the stories and opinions you hear from those little smart persons!—Anya Lvova, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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We always had a buffet for Thanksgiving when I was a kid. It was a sit-with-a-plate-on-your-lap situation, and although there were always a lot of kids around, there wasn’t an official kids’ table. These days we have a bigger crowd, and so we do have tables, but you sit where you want. There’s definitely not a kids’ table, although my kids and their cousins will gravitate toward one another so they’re not stuck by the boring adults. That’s just something that happens organically. We always have a little kids’ craft table, but it’s just to keep the children busy and occupied until dinner is served. Stuff like sparkly pens and fuse beads—little craft projects. I entertain large groups a lot, and when we have a big group of adults and kids, I will set up a kids’ area as they seem to want to have their boisterous together time. But it’s never like “that’s the kids’ table, go sit over there.” There’s nothing that feels like we’re banishing or punishing them. This way they know they can be loud and boisterous and not have anyone tell them how to use their fork. It’s all in the attitude.—Katie Workman, author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and the creator of The Mom 100 blog.

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When I was a kid growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, Thanksgiving meant racing my Schwinn along the cranberry bogs. It meant kicking leaves through woods once trod by Massasoit and the Wampanoags. And, sure as the Middleboro Sachems would take on the Carver Crusaders at the football game later that morning, it meant my mother making the Grand Marnier Apricot Stuffing from the Silver Palate Cookbook, my father grousing about the cost of stuffing a bird with booze, and me sitting at the kids’ table.

While my parents and aunts and uncles crowded around my Great Uncle Wally’s octagonal table in the dining room, us cousins jostled one another at the kids’ table. It was just a warped card table my Dad had found at the dump, with one wobbly leg that was in danger of giving way each time any of us plopped our elbows down hard or leaned into it. My grandmother draped it with a plastic tablecloth to gussy it up. Those of us who raced to the kitchen first could high hosie grandpa’s desk chair or the wooden chair that went with the telephone table or the green metal folding chairs dragged up from the cellar that would pinch your fingers when you opened them if you weren’t careful. The rest of us had to make do with upturned milk crates, the swivel piano stool, or a makeshift booster chair fashioned from a Boston telephone book that tended to slide to one side (which is what I’m seated on in the bottom right of the photo at the top of this post).

It wasn’t half bad sitting in the center of that drafty kitchen, with its worn speckled linoleum floor and pocked farmhouse sink decades before Waterworks glamorized the workaday basin. We rather liked our vantage point, actually. If you tilted back and craned your neck you could see the adults through the doorway, sitting underneath my great great grandfather’s discharge papers from the Civil War. Yet we were out of earshot. While the adults ate off my great grandmother’s peony bone china and drank from glass goblets, we got the bright yellow and green Fiestaware plates and Welch’s Flintstones jelly glasses which revealed Barney Rubble at the bottom as soon as you finished your milk. We’d trade jokes, shoot paper napkin spitballs at each other, and be at the ready to race into a rousing game of Cowboys and Indians after we were excused. (Note the holster hanging from my cousin Doug’s waist in that snapshot at the top of this post.)

No one was particularly anxious to move over to the adults’ table, which is a good thing since in our family someone had to die before you graduated from the kids’ table. “Hey, Aunt Natalie’s not looking so hot—now’s my chance!” my cousin Barry joked at a recent holiday gathering. Even my 18-year old cousin Jeff, on leave from the navy in Vietnam, had to squeeze his 6’4” frame at the kids’ table, knocking knees with the rest of us in the kitchen. Actually, I don’t recall anyone ever graduating from the kids’ table. Instead, my mother simply put an end to the segregation the year she took over hosting Thanksgiving, crowding us all into her dining room in a warren of tables, including that wobbly card table. We’ve eaten ensemble every year since.

These days my home is the Thanksgiving gathering place for my cousins and our families. I still make the Silver Palate‘s Grand Marnier stuffing (you should try it, it’s delicious and no one will notice if you substitute Triple Sec), I still set out the peony china (although I’ve improved upon the stemware), and everyone is still crowded, all ages crowded together at the same table, which I think is the entire point.—Jennifer Trainer Thompson, author of Hot Sauce! and The Joy of Family Traditions 

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I never had a kids’ table at holidays growing up because it was just me—I would’ve been sitting by myself!—Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing

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Thanksgiving, 1972. It was the first time us kids were quarantined from the adults during a holiday meal. Thanks to my dual habits of displaying my chewed food to anyone with a camera and sticking the good silver in my ears, it was also the last. I spent the rest of the decade eating under the critical gaze of Sicilian great-aunts and great-uncles. A typical holiday dinner in our family was a marathon feast. We’d begin with antipasti and drinks as my grandmother and her sisters argued with each other in the kitchen. The family would then sit down at the dining room table—under which I was usually hiding to escape the noise—for separate courses of Parmesan-sprinkled minestrone, Parmesan-sprinkled ravioli, and Parmesan-sprinkled salad. Then and only then would we commence with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings during which the men yelled about money, politics, and for their wives to get the hell out of the kitchen and sit down already. It was a lot to put a kid through.Michael Procopio, blogger at Food For The Thoughtless

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My kids called it the Nobody Table. They’re grown now, but we still laugh about it.—Erica Altes Cole, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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At the Huegerich holiday kids’ table, I fell “in-between ages,” as my mom would delicately say. That was her well-mannered way of quietly consoling me for being several years behind my hip, fashion-conscious cousin Kim, who ignored my existence, yet more than a few years older than my younger cousin, Tim, who was still practically a baby. To distract my thoughts from the bored-to-tears emptiness that I knew was coming the moment we sat down at that table, I’d busy myself before the meal by staying more than an arm’s length at all times from my uncles, who had a thing for talking loud and tickling a little too hard, and staring curiously at my Avon-lipsticked aunts, all of whom had a thing for cackling laughs and heels that went clackity-clack. At some point my grandpa would steal me away to the basement stairs, a twinkle in his eye and a jar of jelly beans in his hand. “Go on,” he’d whisper, his breath sweet with 7-Up and cheap Canadian whiskey, “have some. But don’t tell grandma.” I didn’t much care for jelly beans, but I never let on, giggling at his goofy grin and relenting as together we happily ruined our appetites, forgetting for a moment how I’d feel as soon as we sat down and he said grace. But mostly I lingered in the kitchen, getting in my grandma’s way as she bustled about, burying my face in her apron folds every chance I got, and losing myself in her shrill yet soothing voice.

Once stuck at the kitchen table, I sat there and took it all in, too young to understand the jokes the older kids were telling, too old to steal away and sneak onto my mom’s lap, too shy to ask my well-meaning aunt why she’d just glopped a puddle of ketchup on my roast beef when I hated the stuff. I distracted myself with my grandma’s mashed potatoes, which unlike my mom’s never, ever had a lump, and I tried really, really hard not to set myself up for ridicule by the big kids. A seeming eternity later, after the adults had shuffled back through the countertop buffet for the last of the ham and green bean casserole, it was time for dessert. And that’s when the knot in my tummy started to loosen and I could finally lose myself in grandma’s pie. It didn’t matter what kind of pie, so long as it was hers, with a crust made flaky from the bucket of lard kept stashed beneath her kitchen sink and a filling so ridiculously creamy I would sit there and sigh contentedly between bites. I’d linger long after the others had left to play, tucking into slice after slice in blissful solitude. That, to me, was when it was good to be at the kids’ table.—Renee Schettler Rossi, Editor in Chief of Leite’s Culinaria

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That girl in the photo wielding the drumstick is me when I was about four years old. I was an only child, so I sat at the adult’s table. My godmother, Ethel, always made me creamed peas to go on top of my mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. And you can’t see it in the picture, but there was also this big, beautiful platter with a turkey pattern that belonged to Ethel. She brought it out every Thanksgiving. There was an entire set of matching plates, cups and saucers. I still have about half a dozen place settings. I don’t use them, although I won’t ever let them go.—Julie Dreyfoos, LC Production Manager

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We had a kids’ table. It was in a separate room, as the dining room was full. The dog(s) hung with us, and, well, you know where the broccoli went.—Ouida Duke Lampert, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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This is what I don’t understand about the kids’ table: You do everything you can to make Thanksgiving as pleasant and rewarding as possible, but then you feed the kids separately? I just think the actual ceremony of the meal is as special as the food, and I like the moment where we all finally sit down after working so hard to get this meal on the table. If the stars align, everyone’s quiet, even the 4-year-olds, for a moment.

That said, they’re kids, so you can’t blame them if they don’t sit still. I think you have to do whatever you can to make the meal pleasant for you. If you know that your kids are going to drive you crazy at the dinner table, then sure, feed them first or have them at another table so you can have your adults-only meal. The great thing is you don’t have to feel bad about marginalizing the kids, because they love having their own table. But if Thanksgiving to you is all about embracing the chaos, then keep the kids at the same table.

Who gets to make that call? The host, I suppose. It can be a tricky conversation to initiate. Maybe during the planning of the menu, as everyone’s chiming in with what they’re going to bring or make, you can ask “How are we going to deal with the kids?” Everyone should get a say, because even if the rest of the family wants the 18-month-old twins at the table, the question is, can they be there without driving their mother crazy?Jenny Rosenstrach, blogger and author of Dinner: A Love Story

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I had never heard of a kids’ table until I moved to the States. I still follow my own traditions here at our house: Kids always sit with adults, using silverware and china.—Sofia Reino, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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Christmas, circa 1976. Some of my cousins and me at the kids’ table. I’m the goofy girl with the big cheesy smile.—Tracy Pullum, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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Growing up, I sat at the adults’ table every night with my parents, a Depression-era pair who worried about the amount of uneaten food on my plate more for the potential waste factor than for the impact on my health. I collected overcooked peas on the tines of my fork, buried pieces of tough liver under lumpy mashed potatoes, and otherwise attempted to make it seem as though I’d more or less cleaned my plate. This, of course, was nearly impossible since there were no siblings to create diversions for me. I sometimes tried chattering my way through dinner to distract my humorless mother, but she would only admonish me to be quiet and eat lest I fill up on air.

Little wonder that those rare instances when we went to my aunt’s house for a holiday dinner held such promise. Just steps from the grown-ups’ table, in the sunken ‘60s-style living room, a rickety card table draped with a paper tablecloth and festooned with bowls of Planter’s Cheez Balls was a harbinger of happiness, freedom, and fun. The adults at the long, formal table, draped in my grandmother’s fine embroidered linens with polished silverware flanking settings of bone china, were too preoccupied with their serious conversations to bother with us youngsters. While my father and uncles discussed their new Cadillacs or Buicks, my mother and aunts marveled over the tenderness of the roasted brisket or turkey. But at the kids’ table I could eat (or leave) my meat with the requisite kugel or stuffing, and nobody paid the slightest attention. As long as we kids didn’t yell or start food fights, they let us be. If we were very clever, we could pilfer some Mogen David from our teetotaling relatives’ glasses and spill it into our paper cups. And no matter how many noodles or green beans remained on our plates, we always got dessert—apple pie or bakery-made butter cookies or jellied fruit slices sparkling with sugar. I gleefully munched my way through Thanksgivings, Hanukkahs, and Passovers.

I missed many a dinner with my extended family after I moved clear across the country when I was 17. But I recently attended a Seder hosted by my aunt, the first invitation I’d accepted in more than 35 years. My grown-up cousins sat at the familiar dining room table while I, in my 50s, sat at the card table annex among their children, my teenage cousins, perched on a pink-cushioned vanity stool, my knees grazing the table. While the adults discussed the ramifications of Obamacare and our dependence on Arab oil, I chatted with my tablemates about Pink Floyd and made faces along with everyone else as one of them experimented with his digital camera. The designated kids’ food—boneless, skinless chicken thighs and brown-sugar-and-pecan-topped sweet potato casserole—suited me better than the broiled salmon and overcooked asparagus the adults seemed to prefer. And dessert somehow found its way to our table first.

I’d assumed that I would have—or perhaps should have—outgrown the kids’ table ages ago. Yet I’m relieved to admit that I was wrong. The kids’ table is a little respite from reality, from being too young or too old to do whatever I please. Don’t we all need a refuge where no one will care if we eat dessert before we’ve finished our vegetables, even if it’s only once a year?Lisa McNamara, writer, copy editor, and contributor to The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

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At my family’s Thanksgiving gathering at my parents’ house, the kids’ table is loud. There are so many of us the kids have to eat in shifts—we’re up to 19 grandkids now! My husband still talks about the year we were all sitting down at dinner and my dad bellowed from his seat at the table, “Less laughing, more eating.” That was good for maybe a few minutes of silence before the noise started up again.—Jody Geest, graphic designer and mom

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We never had kids’ tables. We were always interspersed with the adults at the table. That’s how we learned to eat and enjoy whatever wonderful goodies were offered, with the additional bonus of learning table manners. After we’d finished dessert, we were allowed to leave and play together while the adults carried on with their chats and stories.—Barraud Caterers Limited, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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I’m not a fan of the kids’ table. As a child I always felt isolated and left out of the conversation. It’s just wrong, the notion of this satellite table that was set apart by a few feet or, depending on whose house we were at that year, situated in a different room or even stuck down in the basement. The kids were talking to the kids and the adults were talking to the adults. I guess at some point we magically became old enough to be part of the adult table. But until then, all of us cousins could hear the laughter and the heated conversations going on at the other table, but our voices weren’t represented at all. There was this feeling like, “Hey, what about us?” Although to be honest with you, I do like to sit at it now, as an adult.—Saul Kaplan, author of The Business Model Innovation Factory

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It’s roughly 1972, and my adorable aunt Rose has us all over for Christmas dinner. I’m about eight years old, my sister is six, and our cousins are about the same as us in age. We’re at the kids’ table. Supper’s being served and everyone is raving over the powder blue shag rug Rose had put in the dining room. And we’d all been told not to drop any food on the precious rug, on pain of bodily harm. Just then, Rose comes in with a huge bowl of baby green peas, trips on her platform shoes, and drops them all on the rug before falling and skidding for about a yard on them before coming to a stop. The silence was broken pretty quickly by giggling from the kids’ table. I still don’t get why we were all grounded.—Louise Farant, Leite’s Culinaria Facebook fan

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Kids’ table for one, please!—Jonah, age 14 months, from Little House on the Big River

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