The sound of laughter and chatter filled the warm air outside as guests began to arrive. Attention was focused around my two-year-old niece as she implored the guests to play ball with her while they were waiting. I hosted my Kentucky Kitchen Table at my home in Barren County, Kentucky. Barren County, which neighbors Warren County, is a rural area consisting mainly of farmland. As of 2015, only 43,570 people called Barren County home. Those guests who have decided to wait outside in the warm October air admire the rolling hills and roaming cattle surrounding the home. They chatted and caught up and for some, spoke to one another for the very first time. Inside the house, the smells of pot roast, fresh bread, vegetables, and warm cake mingled in the air. The table was set for ten, with filled glasses of sweet tea and lemonade already claiming spots for each guest. I went outside and announced that the meal was ready, and my guests began to make their way inside.
Bobby Joe, a seventy-year-old farmer from Green County, Kentucky and his wife, Donna, a fifty-four-year-old factory worker from Somerset, both smile as they talk with everyone else at the table. Bobby Joe grew up incredibly poor in a small community in Hart County, Kentucky and received no more than an eighth-grade education. He married young and had three children with his first wife, making an honest and hard-earned living as a farmer growing tobacco, raising cattle, chickens, mules, and mares, and repairing farm machinery for others in the community. His first wife, Glenda, worked in the local hospital, Jane Todd, for practically her entire life until she passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Bobby Joe remarried years later, marrying Donna, who worked in the same hospital and was friends with Glenda. Donna was a single mother who raised her son while working to provide for them. These two individuals have very different backgrounds that offer two unique perspectives at our table.
Eva Mae, Bobby Joe’s sister and a recently widowed eighty-one-year-old, lives in Hart County, Kentucky with three of her grandkids. She has dealt with her children’s drug usage and many medical hardships that both she and her husband endured in their thirty-six years of marriage.
Drew, a thirty-four-year-old recovered, (but always recovering, he emphasized), alcoholic and father to a fifteen-year-old son offers a unique perspective at the table. Drew speaks from a place of someone who has hit rock bottom and bounced back. While he expresses regret over these wasted years of his life, he also expresses appreciation for the new outlook on life that recovering from this situation gave him.
Andrea, the twenty-five-year-old newlywed wife of Drew and newly named step mother to his son, also expresses a lot of her outlook on life as being influenced by her new husband. She grew up in a lower-middle class family that was never hungry but didn’t have much more than they needed. Growing up, she struggled with wanting what everyone else had but also feeling privileged to have what she did. She worked minimum wage jobs throughout high school. After graduating, and since, Andrea has worked a factory job. Jacob, the also twenty-five-year-old twin of Andrea, also sat at the table. Growing up in the same situation, he joined the National Guard straight out of high school. He underwent basic combat training at Fort Benning, Georgia and advanced individual training at Fort Lee, Virginia. Returning home after AIT graduation, he went to work in a factory while still attending monthly drill trainings for the military.
These drill trainings were stationed in Central City, Kentucky, where Jacob met his newlywed wife Kylie. He and Kylie share a two-year-old daughter that they have raised in Barren County, Kentucky. Kylie grew up in a home with a mother who abused various substances and created dangerous situations for she and her siblings. This placed a strain on her relationship with her family that she continues to battle with today. In her teenage years, Kylie struggled with accepting herself and admitting to her family that she was bisexual but eventually found the courage to feel comfortable with herself. She also joined the National Guard directly out of high school, effectively removing herself from the situation she had felt so stuck in. She now works at the local hospital and focuses her attention on being the best mother that she can.
Tristan, a nineteen-year-old Mexican-American, sits awkwardly at the table as he is unfamiliar with the majority of people he is sitting with. Tristan was raised in a Mennonite community until he reached the end of their educational system, that does not extend past eighth-grade. He works with his father at their family owned construction business and on their family owned farm in a small community called Fountain Run, Kentucky. He and his sisters help their father tend to their unique herd of cattle, horses, donkeys, and zebras. To help him feel more comfortable during the meal, Tristan’s girlfriend Leah came along with him. Leah is an eighteen-year-old student of Southern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Leah grew up in a rather affluent household in Barren County with her married parents and two brothers. She leans toward the Democratic side of politics, a contrast from many others at the table.
I, Sara, an eighteen-year-old first-generation college student, sat at the table and absorbed every word said by my guests. I recognized that every single person at this table had a different story and had lived their life in a way that I would never be able to fully understand. In the moment I took a moment to appreciate the way that this assignment brought me closer to some of my family members, a friend, and a new friend that I had the privilege to meet that day.
I had decided that to make the most of the meal, I wanted to cook everything by myself. I prepared a meal made of many homemade Southern comfort foods, something that was sure to go over well with all of my guests. Beginning the meal, I allowed everyone to fill their plates and talk amongst themselves before I initiated the most important part of the project. I asked the one required question but requested that my guests didn’t answer until I asked it again at the end of the meal. Instead, I prompted them with the question: “What kind of person do you want to be?”
It was silent for a few moments, as could be expected. I waited and allowed my guests to think it over rather than trying to break the silence with another question. After a few awkward moments, Drew decided that he would like to be a person that others could depend on and someone that is never known to speak negatively of other people. Eva Mae agreed and added that the best thing she could strive to be is someone known to love other people, no matter their situation. The conversation continued as Jacob assured Eva Mae that she was exactly that kind of person and thanked her for the lessons that she had taught to him and his new wife.
As the discussion on that question died down, I moved to ask if what my guests enjoy most about where they live. Everyone in attendance lived in rather small communities but Leah had experienced the lifestyles of bigger cities. While practically all of the others talked about enjoying that they had room for their children to play outside their home and were never far from family, Leah expressed appreciation for the safety and the true sense of community that a small town provides.
I continued asking other questions, not only the ones offered on the handout but also ones that came to mind while I heard my guests reminisce and reflect on their lives. The discussion went smoothly and by the end, Tristan and Leah both felt so incredibly comfortable with these people who just an hour ago had been complete strangers. After getting a sense of where my guests stood on certain issues, I decided that I would soon wrap up the conversation. I arose and offered dessert and reminded everyone of the question that I would soon be asking again. I had to repeat myself as my voice was drowned out by the chatter and laughter just a few feet away. When everything settled down, I asked the question: “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?”
Kylie was the first to answer, sharing that to her citizenship was a sense of belonging—a sense of true belonging—and what led her to enlist in the National Guard. Jacob agreed, adding that citizenship took an entirely new meaning to him when he joined the military. Tristan, who asked that I mention again his Mexican-American decent, said that to him, citizenship is not something that you learn but something that you feel. To him, citizenship is a feeling of safety and assurance in life. We all nodded in agreeance and began to stack our plates and get up. Right before everyone left the table, Bobby Joe chimed in and said, “Citizenship is everything.”
Reflecting on the meal, it is made clear in my mind that this project relates heavily to one of our classes’ central questions: “How do we live well together?” It was obvious that everyone at the table wanted nothing more than everyone to accept one another and who they were, no matter how they lived their life. It is not surprising that current politics came into the discussion but every single person at the table agreed that our political climate and how we discuss politics are entirely wrong. It was mentioned that it was extremely difficult to have a political conversation without someone or a group of people being attacked for their views. When this was said, not only did I remember the importance of guided deliberation, but the imagery of the rider and the elephant immediately came to my mind. In our society, everyone wants to defend their side of the idea without even trying to understand where their “opponent” is coming from.
During this project, not only did I get to learn many things about people who I thought I knew completely, but I also got to learn that what most people really want is a genuine world peace. Most members of our society, or at least the ones that sat around me at my Kentucky Kitchen Table, are tired of the way things are. The world needs to change, and discussion is the first step.