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The Independent Culture
As these photographs

reveal, there's a lot to

be learnt from the

detritus of dinner.

looks at the cultural

differences and habits

in history that hide

behind how we deal

with our remnants

DISPERSING the detritus of dinner is a delicate matter in our society. It is not a problem among less self-conscious countries, where you may well encounter cafes in which plates, table and floor are strewn with orange peel, chicken bones, peanut shells, screwed-up paper and cigarette ends.

In a tapas bar in rural Spain this year, two beautiful girls on a table next to me had each stubbed out two cigarettes in the rubble of their shellfish. For some of us, this would be considered an act of desecration. And was it not a Spanish director, Luis Bunuel, who recognised this when he created one of the most graphic images in film, a cigarette stabbed into the yellow eye of an egg?

It is a sense of desecration certainly understood by the Savoy Hotel's maitre chef des cuisines, Anton Edel-mann. One of his chefs had spent a long time arranging an exquisite dish of lobster. He was mortified when it came back almost uneaten, with a cigarette stubbed out in it, said Mr Edelmann. "It was quite shocking."

The English chef John Burton-Race, of L'Ortolan in Shinfield, near Reading, says if one of his customers did that he'd blow up. "I think I'd go nuts." In the kitchen he scrutinises each plate that comes back, examining the trails, reading the clues. He'd hope every one would be mopped dry with bread, a French fashion he heart-ily favours. "There's nothing more gratifying than plates sent back spotless. It's the biggest pat on the back." And if they lick their plates clean?

Of course, at this exalted level of public eating you hope the chef will have removed offensive bits of gristle, fish bones, inedible stems of vegetables and so on. But even so, anything you leave behind is extremely conspicuous and you may expect to be judged by your host, other guests, waiters, the chef.

What you don't eat, won't eat or can't eat, go into these personal disposal spaces. The exception may be those of us who were boarders at school and thus forbidden to leave food on the plate. (We anxiously awaited loving letters from home not only for the succour they offered but also for the envelopes into which we would sneak offensive food to carry it away from the dining rooms.)

The plates at the Aubergine (Lon-don's hottest meal ticket), the Royal Festival Hall Cafeteria, the Embassy Cafe (a typical greasy spoon), and Sion Manning Roman Catholic Girls' School in west London tell a story. But Nigel Shaffrin, whose idea it was to make the photographic observations above, hesitates to draw conclusions. "Each of us will read the signs in a different way."

The high priestess of social eating, Margaret Visser, has something to say about the detritus of the dinner plate. In The Rituals of Dinner she discusses the niceties, not to mention the nastinesses, of dealing with it. Table manners in this country are a comparatively recent phenomenon, she says. Her researches suggest that it was not until about 1530 that we took any serious account of eating politely. The watershed seems to have been a hard-hitting treatise by the scholar Desiderius Erasmus (the Erasmus), entitled On the Civility of the Behaviour of Boys.

"From this point," she says, "bodily functions came to be displayed in public less and less. People began to refrain in company from belching, farting, excretion and spitting. Eventually, even speaking and writing about these things (Erasmus had been quite unembarrassed about mentioning them) was to be banned in polite society."

Where once food at the dinner table had been taken by the whole group from communal dishes, she says, people began to have implements for their own exclusive use. It became incorrect even to touch food with your hands. "If a mouthful of meat proves too tough to chew we are presented with a problem," says Ms Visser. "In Erasmus's day it was polite to `turn away discreetly and toss it somewhere'."

The only area that had to be kept clean was the table top. There was distinction between spitting out something nasty and general rubbish, for bones and leftovers were on no account to be thrown on the floor in Erasmus's book, even though the dogs would have appreciated them. They were to be placed neatly at the side of one's trencher (the plate), or discarded in the dish called a voider.

Ms Visser, who is Canadian, claims the voider is finding favour again in Europe. "Special dishes for leftovers have officially returned to European dining-room tables in very recent years," she reports. "The French call them poubelles de table, table garbage containers," she says (or what we call a dustbin). "The disgust value of leftovers standing on the table is apparently reduced by carefully relegating them to their own particular, consciously provided dish."

Where did she see these poubelles de table? Top French chef Raymond Blanc is mystified. He has never come across such a thing, except the odd bowl for heaping your empty mussel shells in. French gastronomy's ambassadors in London, Food from France, confirm that these mini poubelles are sold in gift shops, but they are hardly the fashionable thing. No one ever uses one. It sounds quite disgusting, heaping uneaten fat, bone, gristle, fish heads, eggshells, broccoli, gravy and mash, prunes and custard into a communal bowl.

And consider, using the communal dustbin we would be denied responsibility for arranging our leftovers into meaningful personal statements ready for a passing photographer. !