Eating together is a taste of civilisation: Charles Glass defends the pleasures of the dinner table against the onslaught of grazers and snackers

Charles Glass
Tuesday 02 August 1994 23:02

IN The Dead, the last of his Dubliners short stories, James Joyce writes of a Christmas meal as lovingly as if he had cooked it himself. 'A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef.'

Joyce devotes hundreds of words to the food on the table: 'the parallel lines of side dishes . . . a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg . . . two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry'.

Joyce's story of love, death and loss takes place almost entirely at the formidable table of the Misses Morkan, Julia and Kate, who each year gave a dinner and dance. 'Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia's choir, any of Kate's pupils that were grown-up and even some of Mary Jane's pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat.'

Joyce's meal was a ritual, like the Mass, of ceremony and rules. Like the Mass, its theme was love. Another memorable feast, the banquet at the house of Agathon passed down to us in Plato's Symposium, was the occasion for Socrates' dialogue on love. Jewish families have gathered to eat Passover dinners since the angel of death spared them in Egypt 3,000 years ago. Christ began his ministry at a wedding feast and ended it with friends at a supper of bread and wine. Each night during the Ramadan, Muslim families meet for the fitr, the breaking of the fast, when all the family is drawn together, friends are invited and strangers are not turned away. In most societies, families observe important events - births, weddings, anniversaries - by sharing their food with friends. This is how they show their love.

The food columnist Jane Jakeman, however, wrote on these pages last Friday ('How food snobs guard the right to scoff'): '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.' Ms Jakeman condemns the private dinner party for creating 'an illusion of family life' and for its 'sheer snobbery'. Rubbish]

Families have eaten meals together for as long as they have eaten. If codes of behaviour are enforced, so much the better. It is no bad thing for children to know how to use a fork, to listen and to learn how to debate, to be socialised into the life of the family and community. Ms Jakeman takes a functional view of eating - something, as in Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty, necessary but shameful, to be done in secret.

The table has long been the meeting place of minds and affection. An invitation to a family dinner in a strange country implies welcome. People are proud of their hospitality and their food, as part of their culture and the bounty of their household. In Arab families the meal and conversation are so important no one can disturb them. Some dinners in Ireland lasted all night, as poetry, song and whiskey followed food. Whether in a restaurant or at home, we take pleasure in eating together, in resting from work, in talking and listening, in laughter and seduction.

The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a marvellous series in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858 under the title 'The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table'. Each essay told the story of one breakfast, during which the Autocrat guided the discussion, varying its moods and topics. 'A dinner party made up of such elements,' the Autocrat says, the elements being intelligent people, 'is the last

triumph of civilisation over barbarism.'

Ms Jakeman writes with approval: '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 cockleseller 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.' Men and women are not cattle with hoofs and the need to graze. They are social beings, capable of love and expressions of love through the mutual enjoyment of food, drink, conversation and sex. Eating alone is not unlike solitary sex, an imitation or substitute, but not quite as enjoyable as the real thing.

It is not obvious where Ms Jakeman did her research. She writes that the Italians eat in 'nightclubs or steak houses, or, glory of glories, the marble-panelled McDonald's . . .' Some Italians may do just that, but most Italian families eat meals together. The last month I spent in Tuscany with an Italian seemed a succession of meals, children and parents eating and cooking, interrupted by mornings and afternoons of work. This is how families and friends see and enjoy one another. Is America, my homeland, richer for the fact that more than 70 per cent of its families no longer eat together?

Ms Jakeman's death thrust for the family meal is this: '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.' So, that's it. Our working habits. Everything in our lives - especially the most pleasurable - must be subjected to the demands of the marketplace. Ms Jakeman would leave us isolated and vulnerable without friend and family, to the exigencies of the corporate world that finds profits in fast and packaged food. She would cut the thread that binds food to love.

In For My Daughter, Yeats writes: 'How but in custom and ceremony/Are innocence and beauty born?' Ms Jakeman, if you prefer to graze with the cattle, so be it. I'll be having Sunday lunch, probably roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with my children and my beautiful former wife, and we'll drink wine and argue and marvel at how our children are growing. While you suck cockles at some stall, I'll be at Christopher's restaurant or my local Italian osteria, with my friends, discussing our lives, the politics of the nation, food and - what else? - love.

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