Keep your elbows off the table! Don’t talk with your mouth full! Those topics are off limits at dinner table! Use your napkin, not your pants! Many of us grew up with these maxims at mealtimes, the objective being to transform us from slovenly beasts to well-mannered adults capable of performing at any formal culinary event. Rarely, however, do we stop to reflect on where these so-called standards came from and how they have changed over the years.
Cutting your food or stabbing your neighbor?
The accessories we use at mealtimes have not always existed, or have not always been used in the same way. The napkin, for instance, used to be a long cloth that was placed at the end of the table for diners to use, but it was acceptable to wipe their hands on their clothes… or even on their neighbor’s clothes.
Likewise, the fork had only two tines and was used as a cooking and serving utensil to hold the meat while it was being cut, that is to say, not everyone had the privilege of using one. And while we’re on the subject of cutting, did you know that the habit of holding the knife by the handle and avoiding pointing it at other people arose in the Middle Ages, when it was common to use it both to cut food and to slash impertinent diners who caused displeasure?
From hygiene to high-class
If we trace the origins of table manners, we can identify that many of them were born out of an obvious need for hygiene, since the mixture of food, drink, saliva, and vomit* was unworthy of the nascent civilization. After addressing hygiene, we can see a moment in history in which manners became more complex, a means of separating people among classes. It was during this period that many manuals on civility and manners were published and became best sellers, leading many merchant fathers to invest in the education of their children, even if they were not part of the nobility.
A fork’s complexity
As happens with many trends, it became so complicated that people no longer knew what to eat it with. There were different forks for eating different parts of a fish, as well as spoons and forks for each dessert, some requiring only three fingers to hold the cutlery instead of the whole hand. The topics to be discussed became more refined, as well as who could cut and pass the meat and how it should be done. In short, it took years of training to become second nature and thus “civilized” at the dining table.
What is it like nowdays?
Over time, these customs were simplified mealtimes became a little more bearable, casual even. Today, we limit ourselves to using only what is necessary and, particularly after a global pandemic, try to be as hygienic as possible at mealtimes.
*In ancient Rome there were troughs to collect the vomit of overzealous diners who needed to make room for more delicious food during a feast.