The compilations of table manners and proper behaviour are a rich literature: if only because launching oneself into that world, publicly exposing one's table, one's guests and that simply dreadful reproduction Van Gogh on the drawing-room wall is a dicey business. There are relatively few risks in being entertained, so long as you don't eat too much, drink too much or talk too much. The same is not true for entertaining, and the idea that one might be a miserable failure at the task is one of the main reasons why, for instance, the French, who know a little about food and far too much about manners, are so chary of inviting people to their houses.
Fortunately, we are a modern culture, and we believe that there is nothing that is not remediable. Training us to mind our p's and q's is very much in the hands of the ultimate disciplinary sex, the female. Most of the grandes ecoles of manners are run by redoubtable women: Mrs Beaton (who dealt with all human and commercial relations by way of food), Fanny Farmer, Amy Vanderbilt, Miss Manners, Julia Child and their avatars.
You will note that there is a supposition involved in teaching others how to behave: that these people know all the do's and don'ts. The dividing line is between those who have acquired such knowledge by social position and those who've taken the time and trouble to study those whose social position was superior to their own.
Italy, though it has its bourgeoisie, its nouveaux-riches, its mafiosi, is not the place you normally associate with how to behave at table. A happy-go-lucky lot (when not, like the country's intellectuals, dreadfully neurotic), Italians tend to take pleasure in food: whenever, however and whatever.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find in an issue of Oggi, one of those glossy, paparazzi-laden magazines, a compendium of the do's and don'ts of the elegant Roman table. Its author is a Princess Barberini (nee Mita Luciani Ranier), a luxurious blonde, aged 29 and responsible, at the Nazarene College in Rome, for courses in etiquette which, Oggi assures me, are ever sold-out. I don't know what her husband's forebears, descendants of Frederick II, would make of this profession, but I do know that the princess's sense of diplomacy is considerable.
It might not, for instance, have occurred to you that if you invite people to dinner, you should space your invitations so that there is no appreciable time-span between inviting A and B, lest (as was frequently the case with my mother) you find yourself making desperate calls at the last minute to fill the table: who wants to know they weren't thought of first?
When it comes to food, la Barberini's rule is, for Italy, quite sensible: you offer what you (or your cook) do best; and you offer only "easy"-to- eat foods. Italians of a certain class have very definite feelings about pasta which originate in this very rule: spaghetti is for the lower orders, for distinguished people (being generally older) may have missing teeth through which spaghetti and its attendant sauces slip; it is hard to manage (especially for those not trained from birth); it is never, ever, eaten with a spoon. You may not sop up a sauce with bread (a rule that my mother thought sacred). Don't raise a soup-plate to your mouth, don't eat with your fingers, don't slouch, don't put your elbows on the table and don't tie your napkin round your neck.
What's extraordinary to me about these rules is their profound silliness. Manners are the prohibitions of the insecure. I remember as a boy meeting one of several step-grandfathers - my grandmother was much-married (or consorted) - this one a rabid socialist, who told me of his admiration for the English. "The best people in England", he said, "do not feel they have to impress others. They often look shabby, when they are just comfortable; their table-manners displease your grandmother, but in fact they are sensible in that pragmatic British way."
I agree with him. He who is sure of himself makes up his own manners and worries not. The good host entertains on the theory that the food he serves, if it please him, must please his guests. And if the latter happen to dislike offal or be distrustful of shellfish, too bad. Others should be trained to oneself, in the same way that a good guest compliments his host: if he eats in shirtsleeves when it's hot, so should you - as in China, we are told (without evidence), one should burp. Good manners are inherent in trained sensibilities. The social crimes of the bourgeoisie are the delights of those who do not seek to rise and do not fear fallingReuse content