"The good living that still seems to harmonize best with true humanity is a good meal in good company."
In the late 18th century, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote these words before detailing his rules for throwing a good dinner party, which included the following:
- "... the company must not number fewer than the graces or more than the muses." [read: Ten at a table]
- "Whatever is said publicly by an indiscreet table companion to the detriment of someone absent may not be used outside this party and may not be gossiped about."
- "At a full table . . . the conversation usually goes through three states: (1) narration, (2) arguing, and (3) jesting."
- "Choose topics for conversation that interest everyone and always provide someone with the opportunity to add something appropriate."
- "[Do] not allow deadly silences to set in."
- "[Do] not change the topic unnecessarily or jump from one subject to another."
- "Dinner music at a festive banquet of fine gentlemen is the most tasteless absurdity that revelry has ever contrived."*
Sociability was required, for Kant, if people were to become morally upright, and a good dinner party was the place where humanity could harmonize most excellently. Guidelines were not just helpful, but necessary.
Kinfolk magazine, which I have come to late, is an update on Kant's rather formal Enlightenment-era maxims. A self-described "Guide for Small Gatherings," Kinfolk wishes to show us nothing less and nothing more than the elegance of a well-planned meal. It's minimalism, design, photography, recipes, writing, lack of advertisements, as well as the weight of each page all argue obliquely for a renewed attentiveness to the leisure and intimacy of the meal. And the very experience of "reading" this magazine enacts the untroubled closeness Kinfolk wishes to accentuate.
It would not be hyperbole to say that what Kinfolk is suggesting, in the end, is for its readers to the look upon the meal as a religious experience. In her essay, "Eating Reverently," (vol. 6) Nikaela Marie Peters writes that "the approach we take to feeding one another in our individual homes, the manner in which we gather around the table, the unspoken dividing and sharing of responsibilities, the inarticulate daily habits, are all bound by ritual rich with ceremony. Like religious practices, these details reveal the hidden graces and express our repeating and consistent gratitude." The normative force of religion is operative as well, seen in the photo essay "Dietary Confessions" (vol. 7), which gives us a glimpse of the more quixotic side of Kinfolk. As "a parody of common eating idiosyncrasies and the sentences they merit," we see the mug shot of a secret eater, a bed eater, a grazer, a crust-phobic, and, my favorite, an elderly woman indicted as a ketchup-obsessed.
But aside from its romantic insistence on the solemnity of a gathering, what I find most interesting about both Kant and Kinfolk is that both the philosopher and the magazine are conscious of the fact that today we must create the conditions of our own sociability. Nothing is given anymore. Traditions bind us together only so far as we choose to maintain them. There is no longer an inexorable force to them. We need to be shown through rules and a guide how to pull them off, which is why Kinfolk cannot help but bath in the light of a certain nostalgia. How do you create something that is meant to seem uncreated? Putting her finger on this tension, Rebecca Parker Payne writes in "Making a Tribe" (vol. 6),
We grew up unaware that our yearly routines were sowing and tending traditions. The rituals engulfed and enveloped us, and our youthful naiveté told us that this was just life—how our holidays were done. Only with age, and a healthy dose of selflessness, have we seen that this rhythm of delight and anticipation is the careful and thoughtful product of a family or parents that want to experience life together.
Tradition as product. Making a tribe. This is where we are. The question Kinfolk confronts us with is the following: should we passively receive the product that we collectively create through the global market and mass culture, or, should we take the time to carefully and thoughtfully produce a life together? The answer, according to Kinfolk, is surely the latter. And this exquisite magazine tries to show us just how beautiful such a life can be.