Monday, April 14, 2008

Observing the Rules

Having just read the debate that there are no rules for table settings, I am here to tell you there are—and for good reason.

As Margaret Visser says in her fascinating book The Rituals of Dinner – “The active sharing of food—not consuming all of the food we find on the spot, but carrying some back home and then doling it systematically out—is believed…to lie at the root of what makes us different from animals.” And then she goes on to explain the reason for the conventions of dining in every society, from the elaborate rules of cannibalism to who gets served first to why we use white linen.

Customs change, of course. When a Byzantine princess introduced the idea of the fork to Venetians in the 1100s, a bishop of the church condemned her. He said, in effect, that’s why God gave us fingers—to pick up food! Using a fork—which distanced us from the food we eat—gradually became commonplace along with a new cultural idea, “civility,” which had to do with all kinds of bodily propriety. (No spitting at the table, no sharing utensils.)

“No society exists without manners, and specifically without rules that govern eating behavior,” Vinsser writes. Most important she explains convincingly that all the rules come down to this: being considerate of others. That’s reason enough to keep them going.