A Tabletop in Rome
Photographs by Jeannette Montgomery Barron
For the past few years we have been joining photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron regularly, for dinners and lunches, in her adopted home of Italy, via a beautiful series of images she has slowly compiled and posted teasingly on Instagram. That we are thousands of miles away and have not so much as shared a bite makes no difference. These are not foodie pics. While these are meals attended by Barron, we do not see any food and are not given any clues to the whereabouts of these establishments. Yet we can hear everything in these photographs. The almost inconsequential “Let's eat out”, quickly followed by reaching for the house keys, no changing—maybe just wrapping a scarf around your throat—then walking around the corner and in to the familiarity of the place where you are known and simply, deliciously fed.
These photos capture a range of restaurants, mostly Roman. From plastic plaid tablecloths to smooth, reassuring white linens, we wonder what that meal was like and with whom did she dine. Tables are laid with clues, from perfect pre-meal symmetry, to the sensual mess of tables loitered at; others, neatly ravaged with emptied espresso cups, stubbed cigarette butts, and what we can only imagine are the dredges of a great conversation left behind.
These images have been nagging us. They deceptively simple, but they provoke and attract us. What is it? Have we missed something?
We finally realize, yes, we have missed something. In the hyperbolic explosion of food culture, absurdist real estate dramas, and the ubiquitous tonnage of "branding", we have in America mislaid the ultimate comfort of the neighborhood spot. With her elemental, reserved images, Barron has broken our hearts as we long for all the iterations of these we lost in the US. These are the places you and your team eat at several times a week. Usually the same meal, or a variation on one, or one requested and prepared by the chef for a regular. The place you have a few preferred tables, you know the waitstaff by name. Where the proprietor is a friend by virtue of having had so many small pleasant conversations in passing, where the details of one another's lives slowly are revealed after so many visits. You know their kids, grandparents, and vacation schedules. The food is lovely, but one initially is going for convienence, which gives way to dependablity and reassurance. This meal out is the solution to a busy day that does not represent a luxury. It is rather a community and a comfort.
In these images we are also reminded of the value of the ritual of the shared meal. At these tables, our lives are shaped, with conversations supported by bowls of steaming pasta, a particularly tasty salad, a glass of house red. No prep, no dishes to distract us. Perhaps we also feel nostalgia for a time when the end of the day meant reuniting with one’s people, to recap the day, a system quite obsolete now that we text, DM and WhatsApp our way from waking to sleeping. Maybe it is also a mirage, of urban middle class life that Italy has managed to preserve, mostly expunged from our Americans cities. It seems exotic now, doesn’t it? At Jeannette's brilliant suggestion, we have asked her friend, the writer Chiara Barzini to populate the photos of her choosing with small scraps of fictional lives, as if overheard at a neighboring table. - SRW