Margaret Visser is the world's foremost food scholar. She won the Glenfiddich Award for her last book on food, Much Depends on Dinner (Penguin pounds 9.99). This is a riveting examination of a typical American meal - buttered sweetcorn, chicken and salad, ice-cream - traced to its component parts (salt, butter, lettuce, chicken and so on) and analysed in terms of mythology, religion, anthropology, psychology, finance and politics.
And here she comes again, deploying her awesome scholarship to produce an encyclopaedic 400-page history of table manners. It's a magnificent pageant, too crowded and dense to summarise easily, as the index may suggest: it ranges from Hamburgers to Heads eating, human, brought to the table during dinner; from Fortune cookies to Farting; from Ice cream to Insects, caterpillars, found in food; from Nouvelle cuisine to Noise, while eating.
The main premise of the book, partly tongue-in-cheek, is that table manners have evolved as defence systems. It is the determination to be the diner, not the dish, which shapes modern eating etiquette, she explains.
'It is one of the chief rules of etiquette to keep the lid on violence which the meal being eaten presupposes. Animals are murdered, vegetables are torn apart, most of what we eat is treated to fire. Teeth, forks and knives crunch, saw and stab, finishing off what the cooking began. Through our observance of etiquette we do not get the guests mixed up with the dishes. For the point is that we easily could. At table we are both armed and vulnerable. Killing, cooking, and eating food are violent acts, and people naturally prefer none of this should happen to them.'
So we do not point knives at people, to reassure them that the knife will only be used on the food. Americans, for example, lay down their knives after cutting up their food, and continue with a fork. We Britons, so as not to offer the naked aggression of the upturned tines of a fork, reverse the fork, even if it sometimes means the peas roll off. In the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu was responsible for defusing the menace of the knife by rounding-off the points on table knives.
And menace at the table has not only been posed by cutlery. The host who sips wine before offering it to the guests echoes the days when it might have been poisoned. (Darling, why did you have to invite the Borgias?) Only 14 years ago, Romania's disgraced President, Nicolae Ceausescu, brought his official food-taster with him to the Palace when he visited the Queen.
Those who haven't read Visser before might expect The Rituals of Dinner to be a treatise on behaviour at table a la Emily Post. Although this pretentious American authority on manners is widely quoted in her book, it actually opens with a bloodcurdling history of cannibalism. 'Cannibals themselves often regarded the eating of human flesh with awe and horror,' she notes, and it was as a matter of respect that the ancient Fijians, who usually ate with their hands, had a ritual wooden fork for eating people.
There are two sorts, the endo-cannibals, who eat their own people, especially relatives, and exo-cannibals, who eat only enemies. 'They hate their enemies, but eating their flesh is a joy,' she observes. The Aztecs cooked their human victims with peppers and tomatoes, served in bowls of maize.
Margaret Visser was born in South Africa, brought up in Zambia, studied in Paris, lived in New York and England, where she met her husband, and married in Baghdad. She now teaches Ancient Greek at York University, Toronto, where she is also a celebrated broadcaster and journalist, disseminating the weird and wonderful fruits of her vast scholarship.
How much do you know about the history of the table? Here are the answers to 20 questions you may never have thought of asking:
1: What is the English equivalent of bon appetit? There isn't one. English speakers are unique in not wishing companions well before a meal. The French have bon appetit, the Spanish buen provecho, the Portuguese bom proveito, the Germans guten Appetit, and so on. The Chinese have Duo Xie (a thousand thanks). We did have one in the 16th century: 'Much good it do you.'
2: Why is a companion so called? Because eating together, breaking bread, implies shared friendship. The word comes from the Italian, con, with, and pane, bread.
3: Why do we toast people? In medieval times a piece of toasted bread was floated in the loving cup filled to the brim with wine or ale. Last to drink was the host, who ate the toast in honour of his chief guest.
4: Why a trencherman? Before the invention of plates, food was eaten off slices of bread (tranche, French for a slice). What wasn't eaten the servants soon finished off.
5: Why do we eat soup, not drink it? Initially bread was used as a sop for gravy and sauces. Soppy people therefore are as squishy as a bread sop. Soup-eating grew into a substantial meal in its own right, and eventually turned into supper.
6: Why is it shaming to eat humble pie? After a day's hunting the offal of the deer, otherwise known as the umbles, were made into umble pie for the servants.
7: Why a plate? Flat metal serving dishes were introduced around 1525 in Mantua (about the time they invented the fork) and soon adopted by the French. From the French plat, flat.
8: Why do the French list entremets on a menu? The word is a hangover from the time when the French way of serving food was to put all the dishes on the table at the same time. The mets (mettre, to put) were the main dishes. The entremets were amusing diversions, not to be eaten, like butter sculptures of elephants and lions or a pastry Paris holding his apple. It was not until the 18th century that they became edible dishes. Eventually meals were served a la Russe, course by course.
9: Why do we eat dessert? After the mets and the entremets were removed, the table was cleared or de-served (in French, desservie). A post-prandial banquet would appear, with clean napkins, toothpicks, dishes of rosewater, stalks of fennel to chew, bunches of scented flowers, small comfits and confections, a lighthearted flourish to end the meal.
10: And why a banquet? Originally the banquet referred to dessert only, eaten in a different room where fruit, sweets, cakes and wine were presented on benches (French, bancs).
11: And why a parlour? This was a room off the main eating room where guests could retire for quiet conversation (French, parler). Later it became a withdrawing room; eventually drawing-room. The foyer was where the fire was (also from French, feu).
12: What is the origin of the word buffet? A buffet was an edifice of shelves. At Renaissance dinners the precious family silver was displayed on one. Later it came to be used to display food, a trailer for the feast to come.
13: Why do we dress a table? Boards were set up as tables (French dresser, to set up) in order to put silver goblets on display (eg cup boards and dressers).
14: What is a cover? In the 14th century it was a cloth used to cover the tray for the king's food on its way from the kitchen. By 1782, according to a contemporary book on etiquette, cover came to mean a whole place setting, complete with serviette, plate, knife, fork, and goblet for each guest.
15: Why doilies? In the 18th century, eager to show off treasured tables which had been polished till gleaming, and anxious that plates should not mark them, hosts used see-through lace cloths. For added safety they bought square pieces of flannel named after one Mr D'Oyley, a London draper.
16: Why don't the French eat breakfast? The word dejeuner (French jeuner, to fast) means the same as our breakfast, but it slipped to lunchtime, to be replaced by petit dejeuner.
17: Why a menu? It lists details of what's on offer (from the Latin minutiae, trifles). In the France of the 19th century, menus were often wistful fictions, introduced as a form of advertising. One such offered 100 soups, 100 removes, 300 entrees, 200 roasts, 400 side-dishes, 200 to 300 wines - an array which was certainly not available.
18: Why an aperitif? Until the late 1880s an aperitif was a medical term, a drink to open pores, veins and blocked passages. Suddenly it was being applied to what the French drank before eating - usually a vermouth, a stimulant for the appetite. Thus it became known as an opener in the sense of prefacing a meal.
19: Why don't the Chinese use knives and forks? They don't need to, since they had long ago invented a hygienic substitute for fingers. The Chinese word for chopsticks means fast fellow (as in 'chop-chop', hurry up) and Chinese food is finger food at its very fastest. If it seems a slow and clumsy way of eating to a Westerner, then that person has never seen chopsticks in full pomp, shunting rice from a bowl held to the lips.
20: How might you indicate to dinner guests it's time they should go home? A Frenchman may ask if you'd like something, a fruit juice, perhaps? The Elizabethans played nasty practical jokes on guests who outstayed their welcome, inviting them to wipe their hands on a cloth impregnated with powdered vitriol and gall which stains the skin black.
If you still haven't left the house after several days, the Ainu of Japan give a feast for you entitled The Feast of Having Been Sent Back, the Mouth Having Been Cooked For. If the guests still fail to take the hint, the host and hostess move out and go to stay with relatives. That usually does the trick.-Reuse content