FOOD AND DRINK: To the manners born

Is table etiquette outmoded or does it simply need to be updated?
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IT'S TIME WE rounded up all the kids and the trouble-makers and took away their knives. I'm serious. It's too dangerous. I'd take away their forks and spoons as well, if I could, and I wouldn't give them back until they promised to use them properly. The generation that is computer- literate by the age of seven is unable to grasp the concept of eating with a knife and fork. Perhaps it is because it no longer uses such an elegant writing tool as a pen, that it feels a deep, subconscious urge to hold a knife in the same manner, carving graffiti-like swathes across the plate.

Or perhaps it is because it has less need for knives. Home-delivered pizzas and deep-fried potato chips do not require cutting and divid- ing into small portions. Now that grandma is in a home and not at the table, there is nobody around long enough to nag some graces into our heirs. So we have kids who hold their cutlery as if it were drumsticks, Nintendo controls, motorcycle handles, or guitar picks.

Some would call it the sign of a deeper tragedy, that a code of ethics once known as table manners has gone the way of - well - the table. And I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it's the same the world over: that parents in the Pacific Islands constantly nag their children for not having the decency to burp after dinner. That Japanese mums have given up hope that their offspring will stop eating their noodles silently, and start slurping them loudly like normal, civilised human beings. That Moroccan dads go around praying for the day their sons will finally learn to eat with their hands like grown-ups, and that Turkish kids are getting into hot water for not spilling a single drop of their tea into the saucer, when everyone knows that an overflowing cup is the sign of a proper upbringing.

What is clear is that the table manners of the last generation lose their relevance to the next. There are few among us who would now heed American taste arbiter Emily Post's dictum, that elbows can only be placed on the table if one is "ill or alone". We need to codify new forms of acceptable behaviour that are relevant to the new ways in which we eat, and lose those stultifying rules that preserve only pretension. Even an Emily Post-Modern would have to agree that the fish knife is a ridiculous folly; a useless, blunt instrument that can only torture a decently cooked fish.

We need to be told whether it is polite to scoop the fluff from a cappuccino before drinking, and where to rest your chopsticks when they take away your bowl. We should be guided in the dunking etiquette of focaccia where a communal bowl of olive oil is concerned and, more crucially, in the potentially serious social offence of double-dipping, the act of dipping one's corn chip not once, but twice into the party bowl. (The answers, in order: yes, but don't leave the spoon in your mouth longer than five seconds; on a chopstick rest - you can make one from the chopstick paper envelope - or along the edge of the table; pour a little of the oil onto your own plate and dip from there; and finally, nothing is more serious than double-dipping, not even parking your handbag on the table.)

It takes a certain maturity, shall we say, to realise that while manners do not maketh the man, they do maketh life that much easier. They are important not so much in their own right but for what they represent. Not in terms of depicting one's social standing, but in their silent demand that we take the time to treat each other with a little consideration and some respect; that we put our dining companions ahead of ourselves. Manners are all we have between the act of eating, and the art of dining. So would you mind sitting up straight and not rocking back on your chair while I'm talking to you?