The Rituals of Dinner
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 2 Apr 1992, p. 452-463


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Visser, Margaret, Speaker
Media Type:
Text
Item Type:
Speeches
Description:
Personal anecdotes and reminiscences surrounding table manners. The significance of dining rituals and table manners in cultural exchanges, with many illustrative examples. The importance of sharing a meal in bringing people, especially people of different cultures, together. The need to show ritual ease. A look at many different cultures, dining rituals, and their diplomatic significance.
Date of Original:
2 Apr 1992
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Margaret Visser, Author, Broadcaster, Commentator
THE RITUALS OF DINNER
Introduction: John F. Bankes
President, The Empire Club of Canada

A writer is "selected" by his subject--his subject being the consciousness of his own era.

Nadine Gordimer

Only a decade ago, the chef of a Whitehorse restaurant, The Taku, was piqued when a customer rejected his carefully seasoned scrambled eggs. He ran a kitchen knife through the customer's heart, killing him instantly.

The chef's action was most certainly illegal; he is serving a life sentence for the foul deed. But, as Margaret Visser reveals in her text, The Rituals of Dinner, murdering the guest also showed very bad manners! It demonstrated a clear lack of appreciation for the formalities of our rituals of behaving at the table.

Margaret Visser's text is a worthy follow-up to her acclaimed and spirited first excursion into food lore, Much Depends on Dinner, which won the Glenfiddich Award in Britain for the food book of the year.

Her more recent examination of our first biological imperative, The Rituals of Dinner, is not a book of etiquette; those who want to know how to eat a pomegranate or dissect an artichoke will have to look elsewhere.

The text is, rather, a good-humoured and informative look at how we came to eat the way we do when we are eating together. Margaret Visser argues colourfully and effectively that our manners are not prissy social niceties. Manners have evolved because: "At table we are both armed and vulnerable; we are at such very close quarters."

The theme that underlies all table manners is that, however brutally "we may have killed or sacrificed in order to supply our feast, we do not get the guests mixed up with the dishes." According to Margaret, the biggest taboo is to eat another guest. And it's because dinner is so potentially dangerous, with its sharp utensils, bared teeth and ripping of flesh, that rules and an element of control have become very very important.

Believe me, once you have read Margaret's book, you will never look at a table knife the same way!

Margaret begins her text with a description of that nastiest breach of eating etiquette--cannibalism. According to Margaret, there's always a prescribed procedure for consuming one's own species! Eating people, as the English comedy team of Flanders and Swann once said, may be wrong; but that doesn't mean it should be done improperly! Or, as James Beard commented: "I believe that, if ever I had to practise cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around!"

From cannibalism, the author moves to a discussion of the ritual sacrifice of animals and a discussion of the etiquette of vomiting. Try some of Margaret's anecdotes at your next dinner party. Some will prove to be effective conversation starters; others, conversation stoppers!

The Rituals of Dinner is a smorgasbord of fascinating morsels, delectably served. These tidbits help us understand the essence of food, its sensuality, its ability to facilitate friendships, and its reflection of a people's history. Briefly, let me share a few of these insights with you.

First, the points of knives became rounded after 1669 when the French king banned pointed instruments to discourage his guests' tacky habit of picking their teeth at the table.

Second, the table napkin creates a minefield of uncertainty: Do you put it on the plate or to the left? Do you fold it in the shape of a frog and hide a roll inside? Do you tie it around your neck? Do you worry about getting it dirty? On this last point, Margaret comments that: "Napkins, in our culture, are to be kept clean--a wholly unreasonable requirement in view of the purpose for which napkins were designed in the first place."

Third, in an insightful section called Learning to Behave, Margaret examines how we cope with our children's heinous crime of not being miniature adults. Children, in fact, play an important role in reinforcing our belief in the importance of manners. To paraphrase an old Persian proverb: One learns manners from those who have none.

Fourth, Margaret's observations on eating aboard airplanes are particularly apt and amusing. Writes the author: "Manners, here, impose passivity and constraint; ornamentation is taken care of by the oddity of our being served dinner at all in such circumstances. There is no question of argument, and only very limited choice."

Fifth, in The Rituals of Dinner, not only how you eat but also what you say comes under scrutiny. Margaret comments that, although we all want sparkling conversation, it is bad manners to be too intellectual, as that might exclude some guests.

Sixth, a meal at a McDonald's or a Burger King is no less encased in rigid ritual than a meal at the grandest French or Chinese restaurant--or the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.

Finally, Margaret describes the 19th century Parisian phenomenon of "fourteenths"--hired men who "waited at home between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. every night all dressed up and ready to step into the breach where any dinner party threatened suddenly to number 13." Coincidentally, our Empire Club head table today numbers 13; one of those standby fourteenths might have been a useful addition!

Enough, for the moment, on The Rituals of Dinner. Let's focus on the author herself. Margaret Visser was born in South Africa and brought up in Zambia. She received her doctorate in Classics from the University of Toronto specializing in ancient Greek drama, mythology and religion.

Although a classicist by training, she is a dedicated populizer of information and ideas. In addition to teaching classics at York University, Margaret is a frequent contributor to such CBC Radio programs as Morningside and The Arts Tonight, and a commentator on radio and television programs in Canada, Britain and the United States, including CBC's The Journal and NBC's Today show. She is also a contributing editor and columnist for Saturday Night magazine.

Balzac once said that manners are the "hypocrisy of a nation." Perhaps so. But, hypocritical or not, they provide an image of how a nation sees itself. Margaret Visser is an expert on interpreting the image--and sharing it with us.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Margaret Visser.

Margaret Visser.

Thank you very much. People often ask me to give examples of really bizarre table manners. Of course when they do this, they never think of the history of the fork. Or the reasons why you're not allowed to use a toothpick. Because we do it; it's right.

But one of my favourite examples of bizarre table manners is the one where the host of the party doesn't eat anything. He is there to give, to bestow, and the guests are there to receive. So he has to dance or play the flute, and the guests all silently eat.

Another example, in the Chinese Book of Rights, compiled in the first century B.C.: "If you are fortunate enough as a guest to be given a piece of flute by a noble host, you should suck the kernel clean and put it down in front of your robe to show that you are not throwing any of his gift away."

Now this sort of thing seems quaint to us--you can understand it; all of these things are always understandable once you realize the principle behind it.

Behind this is the host-guest relationship which, in all cultures, always is kept deliberately off balance. So the host is giving and the guest is receiving. Why? So there would be a return occasion when the roles would be reversed.

So it's very sophisticated behaviour actually to keep it clear who's the host and who's the guest, who's giving and who's receiving. So the balance is intended to be addressed and this business about putting the peach pit down your front is a demonstration that you understand how grateful you're supposed to be and there's an obligation being accepted here.

Here's another example. The difference between oriental manners and western manners. And I'm sure a lot of people now travel to Japan and China and so forth, and so they all have stories. I've had hundreds of stories of people who have done this.

Once my husband and I invited to dinner in Paris a very famous Chinese theatre historian. And we spent about a week trying to decide what we would give her to eat. And we thought we would be very French, and we produced vegetable wrapped in ham with a sort of cheese sauce on it. She was a very charming, extremely cultured, woman, and she looked at this dish and said: "I can't eat that."

She was absolutely horrified. Meanwhile my husband luckily had cut open his and she realized it was not meat, it was vegetable inside. So she bravely, being very cultured, picked up her knife and fork and started to eat this thing. She actually ate it.

And we discovered later, I mean to a Chinese, being given a large lump of what she took to be meat, is just absolutely barbarous. Furthermore, it looked really rather like a rat. And then, of course, this poor woman had to use this knife to eat it with. She'd had a horrible time; she behaved very well.

You see the Chinese, having knives on the table is a kind of nonsense that doesn't occur. They cut everything in advance, in another room please. Okay? And on the table you have these nice little pieces of blunt wood, much more civilized. Much more sensible, much more foresight about dinner.

I won't go on about violence at dinner, we've already had some examples of this from Mr. Bankes. But the Chinese think you're crazy to put knives and forks, with points, on the table in the first place.

Now eating together, the world over, symbolizes togetherness and communion with the people present. The fact that we have eaten together without violence occurring, well it proves that we're together. Nothing happened, we're civilized, everything is predictable, everything's safe among people like us.

It's unity having achieved a meal together. It's also distinction. And difference among cultures, distinction of class and difference among cultures. But table manners are a social mechanism. They're used, food is used, to express social value. Human beings are, by the way, absolutely doomed to inculturate everything.

You don't distinguish this nature versus culture. Human beings are biologically determined to be cultural. That's the fact of the matter. And table manners, all over the world, are systems. As soon as you have a society of people, you must have table manners; there's no society without them.

And they all seek to achieve consideration for others while we're eating--cleanliness and purity--that's both ritual and physical, self-control and competence. You must show that you are willing to play society's game and that you have been well brought up.

Now we're very sensitive about table manners. This is also biological actually, human beings, and animals are very sensitive when they're eating. If you have a cat and you stroke it while it is eating, it doesn't like it, doesn't like to be distracted because it feels vulnerable. Human beings are like that too except we feel vulnerable--not now about the possibility of a lion jumping on us while we are eating--but feel vulnerable to the people we are sitting at the table with. So the least little thing that happens, that's different, the whole table is electrified.

People see somebody using a knife and a fork differently and everybody at once notices. We're all alert while we're eating. And we also know that this kind of sensitivity can have very grave consequences. You hear of people getting divorced because their partner holds the knife in their fist with the blade going to the ceiling. People get very very upset.

So table manners can keep people apart, and bring people together. But if you don't play and have the same manners, then you can have all kinds of problems. However, as I said, there is hope because one can always figure it out, see what in fact is going on. Why do these people have different manners from mine? Take, for example, a look at some of the differences between the Chinese, or the Japanese, but mostly the Chinese and ourselves. The Chinese have this wonderful strategy to encourage group eating. It's a wonderful thing. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, the bigger the group, the better the food. If there are two of you, then there are two dishes. But if there's nine, well, you've got a choice of nine dishes, a brilliant, brilliant move and you can see how good they are about groups if you go into a Chinese restaurant. If you look around you, you can see how sophisticated these people are.

Now in all cultures, seating is status. And for us, of course, we usually have an oblong table and the people sitting at the short ends are the important ones. There's the head of the table and the foot of the table, just make sure which end is important. But the Chinese have a different system; they have round tables because they've all got to be able to reach the middle. And you'd think in our culture we'd try to be nor hierarchical by having a round table. Well they assure us that where you sit at a Chinese meal is so complicated that it's not even worth-while to ask the question. Westerners just cannot understand the complexities; it's a matter of which direction you face and where the door is and things like this. Be very careful.

Now we should never underestimate complexity as a factor in table manners because table manners all over the world are deliberately made difficult. Life is definitely complicated. There are ways of handling knives, forks, spoons, chop-sticks and using your hands. People who eat with their hands are very very particular about how it's done. We know how difficult chop-sticks are, they are ridiculously difficult, aren't they?

But consider the fork, consider balancing food on the rounded part of a fork held upside down. You've got to put peas and all sorts of things on there and transport it to your mouth without spilling. So it's made very difficult. And having made it difficult, we demand competence.

Competence proves that we are well-bred and have a good upbringing; it also prevents disgust, and even fear, in the other guests. Supposing somebody sat at your table, and custard sort of dribbled down their beard. First of all you'd notice instantly, no matter how small the amount of custard. And you'd wonder whether he knew, and what you should do.

Should I try dabbing?

People will be horrified, you see, and I remind you, disgust most primarily is a culinary idea. So you must not do anything too busy, you mustn't draw attention to yourself. Table manners are a matter of not being noticed.

If you draw attention that's very bad--you mustn't eat boiled eggs with their shells on or anything like that. You mustn't do anything unexpected. This is the idea. You mustn't hold food up on your fork and then put the salt and pepper on them. That's too busy, that draws attention. That's too theatrical.

You must show, in other words, ritual ease. No matter how uncomfortable you are, you must look as though everything is calm and clear. It doesn't matter if you've got food wedged between your teeth, ritual ease at all times. Now the Chinese say, we don't bother about all that. No, we don't have any rules at the table. Which is their way of having ritual ease, because, obviously, they are incredibly rule bound.

I first want to put down one rule whereby we differ from the Chinese. And that is our rule of making life as difficult as it possibly could be. Never be seen with an open mouth with food in it, but you must talk. You must talk, because we all know that we are not here for the food. We are here for the conversation and the food is beneath mentioning.

These things have terrible consequences as Anglo Saxons are well aware. You're not here for the food. We must talk, we must keep our mouths shut.

Now the Chinese, they don't feel this. They will talk first, and they will talk through the meal. But they don't insist on having deep conversations while they are eating.

The Japanese are different. They begin by being very silent and formal at a banquet, and then as the banquet progresses you get noisier and noisier and noisier. You're supposed to demonstrate that you're relaxing, because to them being silent is formal, and talking a lot is informal.

Now for us it's exactly the opposite. At a formal do, you just better talk because otherwise you show that you're there for the food. Whereas if you're at home, you don't have to keep it up, then you can keep quiet and just eat. So informal is being quiet for us. It's exactly the opposite.

Now a lot of our manners are distinguished, East versus West. We give our food in portions and they don't. They eat from the central dish. On the whole, people who share a dish, as opposed to having separate plates, eat in silence. It's easy to understand why, everybody is trying to make sure they get their fair share. We have to have portions if we're going to talk because at least we know we're going to get enough to eat.

Another point is that this kind of thing influences the speed at which people eat. People often say that when they go to China, they can't believe how fast people eat. They can't understand it. Well that's because the Chinese don't go for the talking all the time while they're eating. And so no talk, of course, makes you eat faster.

And then added to that is the matter of temperature of the food. If you eat with your hands your food will be cooler. You don't have sizzling dishes that you can eat with your hands. So this influences the cuisine. And then chop-sticks, which are older than forks, enable the Chinese to eat hot sizzling dishes. But they banish the knife to the kitchen, so everything's chopped in advance. So of course it gets cold quicker, so you better eat faster.

You see how all these things, the cuisine, the temperature, all this plays together in this game. The Chinese say that when they're eating they are aware themselves of three things. Each time they take something--await, avoid, attach. In other words, you look at what you want, you look around, and then you zero in.

And you must show co-operation, contact with others, consideration, competence, timing, every time you take a piece. So this is really difficult stuff.

Of course, we have got over that by having platters and serving spoons. The time was when people would bring their own spoons to the dinner, or there would be only one spoon. You would eat and wipe your spoon on your napkin and pass the spoon on. So gradually, we evolved this idea of having a serving spoon and then also a spoon for yourself.

The Chinese say do not let anybody know what you like. Don't reveal your preferences, don't let anybody know that you're dying for another shrimp. They're not supposed to know what it is that you want--that's a really well-brought up person. You must also eat the warmed up dishes and not only the sizzling one, because those are the ones from yesterday. Okay, you don't show that you even noticed.

For them, rice is the portion. They get a portion of rice and when you eat it you can lift the cup under your chin and you can shovel it in. And you move the cup around, because it's very bad to spill anything. For us, of course, you're not allowed to lift your plate up off the table. For one thing, it's flat which makes it very difficult and then it's our rigid posture, you have to sit bolt upright. And we use our implements to carry the food.

For the Chinese, their rice plays the role in their food that the bread does in ours; it's the staple. And wherever you have a staple, you have enormous numbers of rules about it. About not wasting it, about showing respect for it. Think of the word bread. You break it, you have a side plate. Are you expected to spread butter on it and, if so, how much?

Japanese manners demanded that you eat every grain of your rice. You showed you were finished the meal, and this was old-fashioned formal manners, by lifting the bowl up and showing everyone it was empty. That mean's you've had enough, you've finished the meal. And of course we used to have this sort of thing; you must eat a lot of bread, they have to eat a lot of rice.

Now in many other cultures it's quite okay to slurp your food and suck your bones. By the way, do not rattle your chop-sticks, not done. Apparently, beggars do this and it shows that your bowl is empty, in other words you want some more. So you're allowed to slurp but you must not rattle.

Now the reason for all this, is that for men, the point is that you're loving this meal. That's manners, to show appreciation for the meal.

Now in our culture, as we've already seen, we're not there for the meal, we're actually there for the conversation, so we don't want any noise at all except for talking. I remind you, no matter how quiet you are with your knives and forks, they will clatter more than chop-sticks do. Certainly more than hands do, so we are quite noisy with our implements. And then there's the whole business about how we are not allowed to open our mouths.

Other people don't feel so strongly about this, they're not nearly so put off by food in someone's mouth. What is it about us that makes us so hysterical about somebody opening their mouth with food in it? Just to put it briefly, it's that our culture has trouble with slime.

In North America we like to know what we are eating, this is very Anglo. We get this from the Brits. We don't like food with sauce on it because you don't know what's under the sauce. We might even like to have food like meat, and then potatoes, and then vegetables with a bit of white plate in between.

And we might even eat, first, all the vegetables, then all the potatoes and then the meat. So it's all in the right layers, even in our stomach.

Now consider what happens to this purity that's on our plate, and we all know what happens when it gets into your mouth. Now, I hesitate to even speak about this after lunch, but it's sort of thrashed about and becomes slimy and mixed up, all the things that drive us mad. We don't even want to know about it; we don't want to hear about it; we certainly don't want to see it. So let's keep our mouths shut.

So that's very old in our culture. An etiquette book of 1591, says: "Do not open your mouth when you eat for people will see the food roll by, which is a foul sight."

The Orientals will say you should praise food unstintingly, and of course, we're not supposed to. The French have a problem here because they're so convinced that their food is so fabulous that everybody should praise it. But then they also feel that you shouldn't; so they have a terrible ambivalence about this. Should we praise? Should we not?

The French think that their sauce is so good that you can actually wipe your plate with a piece of bread. You have to do it right, the correct way, but you can do it. Whereas the English don't. This might say a great deal about English gravy.

And finally after the meal, nowadays, I've noticed that people who come to dinner at our house try to help with the washing up. Then the hosts usually refuse. We have a problem here because in our culture we are romantics still and we believe a climax should happen at the end.

Now if you do the washing up after the meal, that sort of ruins the effect.

I'll just remind you finally there's an ancient saying in China: "After the banquet, honourable guests should make strenuous efforts to clear the dishes away from the eating space, but the host must calmly but with forceful authority prevent them from doing any such thing."

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by William Whiteacre Q.C., Counsel and Honourary Solicitor, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Rituals of Dinner


Personal anecdotes and reminiscences surrounding table manners. The significance of dining rituals and table manners in cultural exchanges, with many illustrative examples. The importance of sharing a meal in bringing people, especially people of different cultures, together. The need to show ritual ease. A look at many different cultures, dining rituals, and their diplomatic significance.