How food snobs guard the right to scoff: Balsamic vinegar and dinner parties keep the middle classes feeling nicely superior, says Jane Jakeman

Click to follow
THE dinner-party culture is arthritic and moribund, so why does it survive? Partly because it creates an illusion of family life, partly from sheer snobbery.

The family meal is an oppression that forces us all to consume the same kind of food in the same way at the same time, regardless of differences in appetite, digestion and taste. But this tyranny is dying. Most people in our society want to revert to the human norm: grazing, snacking, feeding on scraps from the royal table or semi-burnt offerings from the temple, street food from the pieman or the cockle-seller or the stall selling pitta or felafel or slices of melon - food to eat on the hoof, as the mood and the hunger take us.

These snacks were not traditionally consumed in addition to a full sit-down blow-out meal, but instead of it. The high street take-away, and not the self-righteous family dinner, is the real heir to our eating history.

The private dinner is a product of recent Western culture. It rose in the 17th century with the prosperous, bourgeois private family house, and the Protestant concept of family government, which saw the dinner table as a battleground for discipline and a means of enforcing codes of behaviour.

Servants and young children were not permitted at the table; they were not real members of the family and possessed no rights in the household. The obligation for women to leave the table before the port, symbolically before the meal was completed, signalled their inferior status - they were to be excluded from the male discussions of money or power which were often the real purposes of the occasion.

The other side of the coin to the jollities of Mrs Beeton's dinners, which most food writers love to sentimentalise, was the terrible domestic bullying revealed in Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. That archetypal Victorian husband Theobald Pontifex first asserts his authority over his new bride, Christina, when he insists that she must order dinner in a hotel on their honeymoon. Mind you, he decides what the menu must be - his reluctant wife simply has to carry out his orders. 'I think we might have a roast fowl with bread sauce, new potatoes and green peas, and then we will see if they could let us have a cherry tart and some cream.'

After a few minutes more, he draws her towards him, kisses away her tears, and assures her that he knows she will be a good wife to him.

Thereafter, dinner is to be the principal symbol of control in the Pontifex household. 'What head of a family ever sends for any of its members into the dining-room if his intentions are honourable?' asks Butler, rhetorically.

The communal dinner emerged from the same bourgeois family arena, the meshing of individuals with the group. In the same way that the literary world ostracises the popular novel, thereby ignoring the reality of what most people actually read, food writers ignore the reality of what they eat. The preoccupations of the traditional English novel, the complex rules and relationships that are observed, the family and social pressures, are precisely the concerns and tensions underlying the dinner party.

These obsessions are artificially retained in our literature and food. No number of Booker prizes could make neurasthenic literature truly popular, no insistence on family values can make the vast majority of the population return to them, and no amount of genteel protest can prevent the opening of new hamburger chains.

Perhaps a sense of impending doom has stimulated the desperate search for novelty, for more and more exotic ingredients and recipes, and the gastronomic tourism in which we indulge. It is significant that the very societies whose dishes are extolled most by British food writers are the keenest to embrace the new go-as-you-please food culture. Where do Italians go to eat? Not those trendy little places in Trastevere sought out by affluent middle-class (and middle- aged, moyen sensuel and middle- browed) tourists from northern climes. The Italians get kitted out in glittering elegance for eating in nightclubs or steakhouses, or, glory of glories, the marble-panelled McDonald's that are now the focus of youth and style in most Italian cities.

The same trend is true of Spain and even to some extent of France. Yet the British middle classes abroad never notice what the locals are really eating. They construct in their minds an entirely fictitious diet of mouth-watering Mediterranean delights based on the myth of foreign food as regularly presented to them in the foodie press. It's the tourists who seek out those delicious little traditional eating places and pay a fortune for some peasant dish, some form of innards dressed up in sauce, or perhaps shellfish whisked out of heavily polluted waters, a delicacy the locals wisely abandoned long ago.

Eating in a group surrounded by family and friends has not suited human beings throughout most of history. It no longer even suits our working habits. Flexi- time and the computer terminal mean the work patterns round which our meals were structured have fallen into decay. So why is the dinner-table culture so important to British social classes A and B, at home or abroad? It's because, like so many other things in our culture, such as education and dress and the novels you read, it is a vocabulary for indicating your superiority over the C1s and 2s.

The real loathing and disgust of the middle classes is reserved for lower-class Brits openly enjoying themselves. Having cheeseburgers and fries in the land of olive oil] How crude and tasteless] Look, there's someone eating chips and tomato sauce - ooh, aren't they fat and slobby] And there's someone over there who can't understand a menu in French] We know what poussin and tripes a la mode de Caen and epinards verts mean. And so do our friends - the kind of people we have to dinner - our sort of people. We wear straw sun-hats and etiolated print dresses and take home little flasks of balsamic vinegar bought at outrageous prices from Tuscan shopkeepers who cheerfully shake ketchup over their frankfurters at the end of another day relieving silly people of their money.

To the British bourgeoisie, food remains either a symbol of a totally phoney past devoted to a mythic warm family life, or else a vital part of the semiotics of snobbery - and as the egalitarian tides swill ever closer around the middle classes, it's no wonder they cling to their dinner tables like survivors of a shipwreck clinging gamely to their rafts.

The writer is an art historian and food columnist for 'The Modern Review'.

(Photograph omitted)