BOOK REVIEW / Sharpening a knife over the way we eat now: The rituals of dinner - Margaret Visser: Viking, pounds 17.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought it was safe to go back into the takeaway . . . Margaret Visser's superlative analysis of table manners begins with the idea that eating together is a terrifying and hazardous

ordeal. Dinner parties pitch strangers, hosts and hostiles alike, into a violent and aggressive atmosphere suggestive of slaughter, chopping, mashing, slicing, grilling, boiling and roasting; and they thoughtfully place dangerous knives, skewers, forks and glasses within easy reach. No wonder we have developed elaborate formal procedures to reassure ourselves that we are sitting down, as she says, to eat, not to be eaten.

This is Visser's second book about the art of dining, but her first, Much Depends on Dinner, left an awful lot of people hungry for another helping. A poised and thorough account of a single meal, it traced the history of corn as an American staple, the science of salt, the marketing campaigns behind butter and margarine, and about a thousand other useful subjects. Visser peered through the tiny aperture offered by a simple menu - sweetcorn, chicken - and beckoned us towards a panoramic view of the consumer culture.

Now she has turned her attention to the refined codes of behaviour that govern our meal times. Table manners sprang up, she suggests, as a form of self- preservation, a kind of truce. But the ethical system that crystallised around dinner soon became an art in itself. It symbolised an essential human quality: the aspiration towards community. Hardly any other animals - give or take a chimp or two - share their food the way we do, though some take it in turns to lunge into the same dead antelope. Visser scavenges world history for all the different ways of keeping the peace, and concludes that: 'Only people actively, regularly and continuously work on the portioning out of their food.'

She begins as an anthropologist, dissecting cannibal societies and finding that even here, in what we take to be the epitome of lawlessness, there was a method - 'something almost amounting to a cuisine'. Some cannibals, she points out, burnt the body to ashes and then ate it with mashed banana. She is always able to illuminate the sense in which manners are a way of sanctifying food. Animals are 'sacrificed' or made sacred; African tribesmen kiss cola nuts before sharing them to demonstrate they are not poisoned - much as a wealthy Western host will taste the wine to protect his guests from anything rancid.

In ancient Egypt dinner guests wore cones of scented fat on their heads, which melted 'deliciously' as the meal wore on; in modern Portugal ('one of the politest countries in Europe') hosts are still expected to make a small speech before dinner; the Ainus of Japan have particularly long hair, and wear carved wooden 'moustache-lifters' to prevent any slopping about while drinking.

Visser is wonderfully alert to the things that cause manners to slide. Now that we have washing machines, it is no longer necessary to flaunt wealth in the whiteness of our table linen. Now that

we can telephone our guests ('always slightly rude because it forces a quick

decision, which might be regretted later') we have lost the fragile etiquette surrounding written invitations. And now that we lack confidence in our difference from and superiority to animals - seeking, instead, a sentimental affinity with anything furry and feathery - so we become more squeamish, and insist on having our meat, if we have it at all, wrapped in 'chaste' polythene squares.

This is a beautiful subject for a book. Rituals of any sort, and especially rituals of the smallest, most artless kind, allow us to live metaphorical lives - even if we don't always get the message. But a substantial part of Visser's research is etymological, so she is able easily and unobtrusively to point out that the word 'companion' comes from the Latin, and means people who break bread together. Politeness, she notes, emerged as an aspect of the Greek polis, and thus has specific applications to city life: people in large communities needed conventions to help them rub shoulders smoothly and aquire 'polish' - that was how they could become urbane and civilised.

Civilisation was not, in practice, always pleasant. One gallant Frenchman was stout in his praise for a 'frightful beverage' which was, his host insisted, a 'rare wine', but which turned out to be medicine. Classical manners required steely self-discipline, and offered a finer spectacle by far than today's slouching, yuk-what-the-hell's-this candour.

Even the most studied informality becomes, in her hands, a telling demonstration of our cultural priorities. These days, unusual formality seems as thorough a breach of convention as bad manners; it seems like 'an impolite and unkind expression of icy distance'. She is happy to take this further: 'There is a shying away from elaboration, a preference for the bare bones of everything. We often seem, for instance, to prefer listening to incoherent speakers than to articulate ones, feeling that incoherence is 'straight from the heart', while fluency must be a trick. Apologies have almost gone out of style because they are hard to make, and being required by others to make them easily convinces us that they are merely insincere.'

This is just one of the hundreds of moments at which Visser's book slips away from its main theme and becomes a precise critique of the modern world. We can sense the distaste - this is a woman who has written two books about dinner, after all - felt for anyone who might prefer 'the bare bones'. The Rituals of Dinner is as learned as anything: Visser quotes from Aeschylus, Rabelais, Erasmus, numerous books of etiquette and P J O'Rourke, as all well brought-up people do. But though she knows where the bones are all right, she never forgets that the beauty of it all is a matter of mere flesh and blood.