Some foods send a clear, unspoken, unmistakable message to individuals sitting down at a meal. Some foods are more fun than others. The setting makes a difference too, of course, and we choose the setting for our meals according to our moods.
How we eat a particular dish is actually completely arbitrary. For example, someone, somewhere, decided, “This is how we eat fish” and proceeded to demonstrate how to place the lemon wedge on the tip of the fork, daintily, and squeeze it over the fish in a circular, hovering motion and how to carve the spine out with the dexterity of a professional cosmetic surgeon.
If you are an American visiting Great Britain, one thing that might strike you as you sit in a restaurant is that diners hold their utensils in the opposite hand from us and they hold the fork with tines facing down. Our utensil manners are as outlandish to them for sure. Again, someone in time, likely someone with authority, decided that things would be just so. We follow the models of our culture. Let us illustrate, briefly, how arbitrary this is.
In the renowned 1861 publication titled Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the author, said Mrs Beeton, lists and explains an impressive volume of information designed to instruct the reader regarding how to live well, and living well begins at the table. In Mrs Beeton’s own words, “All creatures eat, but man dines.” It is true that eating spans from a physical need, whereas taking part in a meal is a unique social ritual.
“It is generally established as a rule,” explains the author, “not to ask for soup or fish twice, as in so doing, part of the company may be kept waiting for the second course.” Imagine having only one slice of pizza lest we make others around the table wait too long for the second course. By George, the pizza is the second course, and the third and dessert too!
When you think about it, this rule is merely about social ritual (not that there is anything wrong with that) and has little to do with the food at hand. Today, we instruct children to refrain for requesting a second serving, because this might be misconstrued as gluttony. See the shift? This is about self-conduct; not about consideration for others. Different perspective for a different era.
Incidentally, it is important to place things in their proper context. Table manners and living manners change constantly from one century to the next. We went from eating with our hands and wiping our mouths on sleeves designed for that very purpose to holding spoons with our little finger raised in counter-balance.
Cutlery and fine dining-ware are the tipping point, along with evermore sophisticated sitting implements. Namely, the high-back chair. Innovations in dining tools meant innovations in dining behavior, not the other way around. In fact, sophisticated meals were created specifically to set the stage for the practice and display of polite manners. It is interesting to consider that pizza out-dates any such meal.
What if someone had decided that pizza must be eaten with a fork and knife? Or even chopsticks? Would it provide the same sort of carefree enjoyment? We think not. And speaking of enjoyment, we must ask another important question: Could table manners actually teach us to be so reserved that we dare not even be bold in life, in general?
The lesson here is clear: In those moments when we feel unsure of ourselves, it helps to take actions that remind us to be bold and genuine. In such moments, choose foods you can eat with your hands.
Original Image: Grace at Table by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1740)