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Table etiquette is rooted in common sense

Wednesday, 10th July, 2019 4:50pm

Has your mum ever told you to sit straight at the table or not to put your elbows up?

Mine did saying ‘don’t slurp the soup, chew with your mouth closed’ along with many more ‘rules’ for table manners.

These rules of course don’t apply if you are eating your dinner in front of the TV with the plate on your lap – and hence table manners are not that common anymore (at least they seem to be disappearing).

As I love history, I thought I do a bit of digging to see where table etiquette originated. To understand why table manners were of importance at one time, you need to know how life back in the 14th and 15th century was.

Public houses serving beer and food didn’t supply cutlery but every person had their own spoon and knife when travelling. The violence that occurs when booze and weapons (knives) come together has led to some fatalities (I wrote an article a while back on why our table knives are so blunt).

Also, hygiene wasn’t the best to say the least. In 1558, Italian poet Giovanni della Casa published his book ‘Il Galateo – The Rules of Polite Behaviour’. This guide covered everything from dress code to table manners.

One rule was to wash your hands before sitting down to dinner, not to touch someone else’s food and not to gulp down your dinner. Most of the rules were in order to limit bacterial diseases, which were common at the time, but also to civilize daily life and make it saver.

We can thank writers and educators during the Renaissance for rules on etiquette – don’t offer a half-eaten fruit, don’t smell other people’s food (in case you had the sniffles), don’t fart at the table, don’t double-dip (crisps into dips) – the list goes on.

But with everything in history, these rules were applicable to the higher classes and meant to set you apart from the mere mortals – at least in the mind of the aristocracy. It never occurred to them that most of these rules simply meant a cleaner and safer environment how food is prepared and consumed and to be simply more civilized.

Table manners when I grew up were still applied with my dad insisting that we don’t talk while eating (I learned later that a meal can be fun when laughter and thoughts are shared). Also, my dad was served first before we got our ‘rations’ and it was frowned upon if we chewed noisily (and I have to admit, I can’t stand it either).

Guardian writer Jonathan Jones explained it perfectly in 2011: “eating is a physical need, but meals are a social ritual” and rituals have rules.

Mrs Beeton added her own rules of the times and most of us would laugh now at it but it meant that meals were an occasion and not just some food on a plate in front of the telly.

By no means, do I set the table every evening for Mr T and myself – we, too, sit in front the TV to eat.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish that we stuck to the more traditional ritual of eating at the dinner table with a lovely decorated table. I hold elaborate dinner parties to satisfy my need for a more formal dining experience (and to try some new ideas on my guests) and rules of table etiquette are instilled in most of us without having to point them out because most of them are common sense.

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