This is the sociable month, the month of eating dangerously. In December we will eat out much more, be invited to more dinner parties, and even give a few of our own. There will be buffets, with food of unknown antiquity, mystery meals from over-stressed restaurant cooks, and far too much of everything. Thanksgiving was just a warmup exercise. Now we really have to eat.
Charles Dickens imprinted forever on our minds the assumption that we deserve more and more elaborate meals at holiday time. This raises some difficult questions, not just about cooking but about food etiquette and table manners. It’s not always easy to eat politely in company if we’re not in the habit of doing it. What used to be called table manners are becoming obsolete, because many families don’t use a dining table, even if they have one. Those long, formal settings seen on TV series like Downton Abbey are rarely seen in modern suburban homes. We eat on the run, on the couch or in front of the TV. On the couch all the formal rituals of the table are abandoned. Knives and forks and even plates may vanish. It’s all too easy to slip back into the pre-civilized habit of simply eating chunks of food with our hands.
The big difference is that a table almost forces us to be sociable, because we sit face to face with no other entertainment than each other. In restaurants it’s easy to see that some children have trouble with this arrangement. They prefer to grab and go, rather than sit and stay.
This is one consequence of living in a free country – we can choose exactly how to eat, and we do. In a democratic republic there are no artificial, aristocratic standards to dissuade people from eating with their hands, or on the street, or in their cars, or on the couch, or on the floor with the dog. What are table manners anyway, if not a form of social control?
That’s exactly what they are, and why they may be important. One school of thought says that primitive civilization began with collective eating, and that modern civilization began with the introduction of table manners. When people ate together, they would talk. They also needed some rules. When food was scarce and every diner had a knife in his hand, lunch could turn very nasty indeed.
So, with food as with love, certain formalities were introduced. Modern western table manners began in the Middle Ages, and have been elaborated over the centuries until we have rules about everything – the order of seating, what a formal place setting should look like and how to use all the utensils, plates and glasses, what to do with your napkin, and even the correct posture for eating and the correct way to pass the wine or the salt.
Of course the rules are arbitrary and ridiculous, like any other social rules, but they make order out of what can easily become chaos. They save embarrassment, because everyone knows how to behave. They also save the carpet, and the couch.
The last people who had the habit of eating while lounging on couches were the ancient Romans, at the height of their imperial glory – and we know what happened to them.
Copyright: David Bouchier