We cherish each stain on the tablecloth

Whether you're sharing bread or rice or pasta in good company, a spill is just another snapshot commemorating the event.

During last night's dinner party, our friend Marlene dribbled a healthy blob of roasted red pepper purée on our pale yellow tablecloth. I was bothered only by her distress. "It's OK," I insisted. "It'll wash."

"We like stains on our tablecloths," my husband added. "They're reminders of the good times we've had with our friends and family." (Is this man a treasure or what?)

Then I experienced one of those moments when I lost the thread of conversation. I looked around the table at the setting and the individuals.

I was surrounded by some of the best people I've had the good fortune to know, all of them loving and supportive, genuine and remarkable. And I thought about the word "companion," the derivation of which is "to have bread with." Whether you're sharing bread or rice or pasta in good company, a spill is just another snapshot commemorating the event.

That same tablecloth already has two or three pale reddish ghosts on it, reminders of the celebration we enjoyed with family members who visited Los Angeles from Tennessee when I graduated from culinary school. Sure, the pictures of the event are nice, but they're tucked away in boxes with other photos from our lives.

My Le Cordon Bleu hangs on the bedroom doorknob, collecting dust and occasionally being swatted at by a bored cat passing through. But that tablecloth reminds me of what is more important than my academic accomplishment. Through its frequent use, it reminds me of the love of my family, who went to considerable expense and effort to come out and celebrate with me.

One of the serving bowls on the table during last night's dinner party cost less than a dollar back in the 1930s, in Depression-weary rural Tennessee. Its kind fetches a high dollar in antique stores now, but I treasure it because it belonged to my grandmother, a sharecropper's wife. She loved it. I use it whenever I can, because it reminds me of her.

If that bowl were to break in the hands of a friend or family member, so be it. At least it was in use, it was loved. It wasn't packed away, as are so many fragile treasures, never to see the light of day. If it were broken, I could always take the bits and a little compound from the craft store and fashion something else from them. I'd still have my grandmother's bowl - just in a different form.

If we focus on the "hauteness" of our cuisine or the finery of our table setting over the value of the people with whom we share it all, we succumb to a poverty of spirit.

I want to cook for them the best I can, of course, as a gesture of goodwill and friendship. A well-made meal shared with special people has no equal. But I never want to lose sight of the importance of those who grace my table and my life.

After everyone left last night, out of habit I dabbed at the red pepper stain with spot remover and washed the tablecloth right away. Only the faintest blush of the spill remains. I'm tempted to ask Marlene to come back and spill something else on it - and this time make it stay!

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