A dear friend sent us this article the other day and we find it entertaining and informative. Just the type of book we like to order! So thank you for passing this on to us, Lynette!
Sandi Toksvig: 'The aperitifs are not there for you to get bladdered'
How does one eat peas politely? Which innocent gesture might offend in South America? And what was Confucius’s golden rule at dinner? In this extract from her new book, 'Peas and Queues: The Minefield of Modern manners', Sandi Toskvig reveals all
The way manners are expressed evolves on an almost daily basis. In the 12th century, it was recommended that one should cough very loudly when entering a house “for there may be something doing which you ought not to see”. These days it’s easier to ring the bell. The word “etiquette” derives from the French word for small labels or tickets attached to bags to tell you what was inside them. In the same way “protocol” comes from the Greek protokollon, which was a sheet glued to a manuscript case to show its contents. Labels or stickers attached to things proclaiming what they were and where they belonged gradually developed into written instructions for how to behave. They would be posted, for example, outside a soldier’s billet or lodging to tell him what was expected. Those who ran Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles used étiquettes (little cards) to remind courtiers to keep off the grass or whatever else was considered de rigueur in court life.
What is and isn’t generally acceptable changes all the time. There is a painting by the Dutchman Andries Both called Hunting Lice by Candlelight. It was painted in 1630 and it shows four men engaged in ridding a kneeling figure of unwanted vermin in his hair. This would not be an acceptable public practice today. Today there are rules about Twitter and Facebook which didn’t exist a decade ago because neither did Twitter or Facebook. Modes of behaviour need to be examined continuously as we decide which are worth keeping and which need updating. That doesn’t mean that some rules which have been around for a long time aren’t still worth sticking to.
To consume whole pieces of food at a gulp is for storks and buffoons. Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium(On Civility in Boys), 1530
There seem to be more rules about eating than almost anything else. Some of the earliest manuscripts in the world have sections on dining etiquette. Even Confucius, who lived back in 551-479 BC, wrote “Do not snatch (at what you want)” when he covered this topic in his Book of Rites. Table manners have been around for as long as there have been tables.
Some bog-standard rules everyone should know
Don’t say “bog” at the table No one, while eating, likes to think about other bodily functions. Some cultures even have strict rules about only using the right hand when eating or receiving food. The left hand is considered “unclean” as it is the hand used for “unhygienic” tasks.
Don’t put your elbows on the table This is a very old chestnut and I hear you cry, “Why can’t I put my elbows where I like?” The simple answer is that there’s a limited amount of space at a table and it needs to be shared. This may have been more important in medieval times when people sat packed on long benches but even at a spacious dinner table you’re still having a communal experience. The only joint on the table during a meal should be one for carving.
Sit up If you slouch, you seem less than engaged with your dining companions. The age-old rule of not tipping your chair back is just common sense. I once had a disastrous date with a young man (this is a very long time ago). We were in a restaurant that was divided into separate eating booths for each dining party. He tipped his chair back and crashed right through the divide into the next table of diners. It was not a successful evening.
Chew with your mouth closed According to an Elizabethan book of manners published in 1577 (A New Yeeres Gift: The Courte of Civill Courtesie), if you open your mouth while eating, people will see “the food rowle by – which is a foule sight and loathsome” and I don’t suppose much has changed over the years.
Never use your phone Focus on the people you are sharing a meal with, not someone who isn’t even in the room. Don’t put your phone on the table as if you’re hoping to be interrupted by something more important. Do not tweet about your meal. It’s dull for everyone including those people who have been foolish enough to “follow” you.
Use your napkin Napkins have been an essential part of eating without annoying for about 3,000 years. The first napkin was a dough used by the Spartans. It was called apomagdalie and it was kneaded at the table after a meal to clean the hands. The ancient Romans were the first to move on to cloth, with dinner guests bringing their own mappae, a fairly large sheet of material, to avoid toga and couch staining.
Reigning cats and dogs Medieval manners books asked children not to “stroke cat or dog” while eating. Nothing much has changed. Don’t encourage a creature which may shed its hair to lounge about under the table, and certainly don’t feed it. It takes genuine passion for a pet to enjoy the sound of it salivating.
Attending a banquet
Never trust a man in a ready-made bow tie. Claus Toksvig (1929-88), Danish broadcaster, my father
Formal dinners are usually held as a kind of ritual or theatre. I have a Jewish friend who describes the many festivals she and her family mark as being summed up historically as, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
An aperitif The word “aperitif” comes from the Latin aperitivus, meaning “opener”. Pre-dinner drinks often consist of spirits and are usually stronger than those served with the meal. They’re intended to stimulate conversation and to help the body prepare for food. They’re not there for you to get bladdered. In my native Denmark, when I was a child, people only touched their alcoholic beverage during a toast. There was, as I recall, an almost endless series of toasts.
The place setting Fewer people give formal dinners these days so you’ll probably be a guest rather than a host. The first time you attend one you may feel a little overwhelmed. You may worry that you might eat someone else’s bread by mistake or take a gulp of their wine. To help you recall which bits belong to you, all you need to know is:
Solids are on the left: liquids on the right There’s an easy way to remember – make the symbol for OK with both hands. The left hand makes a “b” for bread while the right makes a “d” for drinks. Do this in your lap. In several South American countries it suggests the person you are gesturing to is a homosexual. The person may well be a homosexual but may not want it pointed out at the dinner table.
Bread It’s quite common for a roll to already be on your bread plate when you sit down. If a basket is passed it is passed to the right by the host. (The host should offer it to the person on their immediate left first so they don’t have to wait for it to go all the way around the table but, really, let’s not get hung up on all this. It’s just bread.)
Cutlery Start with the cutlery furthest away from your plate and work your way in. If in doubt watch your host, who’ll silently indicate what you need to do. Anyone who makes a big deal out of you using the wrong implement is bad-mannered. Some snobs once believed that having many rows of cutlery showed off their status. This is no longer necessary and I trust we’ve established that fish knives are absurd.
Seating plan It’s still the norm for men and women to be seated in alternate seats. This probably dates back to the Crusades. In order to teach knights manners they were often paired with a lady at dinner. The females had a civilising effect as the men learnt not to lick their fingers, smack their lips or snort. Any woman sitting next to a man at a formal meal knows she’s there to keep him in check.
Cheese As a matter of course, young ladies do not eat cheese at dinner-parties. Manners and Rules of Good Society by “A Member of the Aristocracy”, 1888
The anonymous aristocrat doesn’t give a reason why. Maybe it gave young ladies bad breath. There’s some fun to be had thinking of the horror one might have caused by spearing a piece of Gorgonzola with the wrong knife and handing it to a woman. Women can now help themselves but no one should take the “nose of the cheese”. As the French say, “jamais le nez” but what is that? It’s the pointed end of a triangle of cheese. Posh cheeses are usually made in a round shape and the centre will be the richest part. It’s thought to be the most delicious bit and it would be rude to take it. Slice a triangle of cheese like a cake by taking a sliver from the side.
Eating peas You’re probably wondering – what was the biggest day in pea history? Well, I am here to serve. It was January 18, 1660. A hamper including peas in their shells from Genoa was presented to King Louis XIV of France. His aide, Count de Soissons, started shelling them for him and a food craze was born. Courtiers went mad for this luxury item, while in fairy tales princesses proved their credentials by being able to feel a single pea through many mattresses. Peas are, however, a devil to eat because they are small, mobile and too brilliantly coloured for anyone to overlook should they shoot off the plate. Ideally you should hold the fork tines down and try to crush the verdant devils onto the points. The fork shouldn’t be turned into a scoop unless you are in America where it is more acceptable. The critical thing is not to fret about it. One of the easiest options is to use some potato or other soft food to help squash them on to the fork. Don’t use your fingers or your spoon.
WHO INVENTED QUEUEING?
An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. George Mikes (1912-87), Hungarian-born British author
No race on earth seems to queue quite like the British. In his 1946 publication How to be an Alien, Mikes called it “the national passion of an otherwise dispassionate race”. The next time you have to queue, and it’s bound to come up (usually in the rain) consider its knightly origins. The word is 15th century and is not British but French for “a tail” or, more impressively, the heraldic term “tail of a beast”. This seems apt, as the first queue I can think of is when Noah managed to persuade all those animals to line up for a cruise. Hard as it may be to believe, other nations also queue. The Danes have a system of numbered tickets in chemists to ensure the fit and the poorly are treated with equanimity. Queuing is tedious but it’s dull for everyone. Winston Churchill even invented the word “Queuetopia” to warn Britain that under the Opposition they might be transformed into a socialist country in which people were required to queue for everything. Self-service counters were invented to make people feel as though they weren’t queuing. In fact, by the time you’ve called six times for assistance at a self-service till, it’s taken longer than waiting in line.
Who invented cutlery?
Forks The word fork comes from the Latin furca or “pitchfork”. It consists of the prongs, which are called “tines”, and the handle, known as the “shaft”. The European rule is to keep the tines down, unless it is the only cutlery you are using, in which case you can scoop with them up. Americans are happy to scoop up at any time. The fork was invented because some things when cooked are too hot to hold. Ancient Egyptians used large forks for cooking, as did the Greeks, and there were bone forks found in Chinese burial sites from more than 4,000 years ago. Frankly, forks are now a pest in museums.
Knives There was a time when everyone carried their own knife. It was sharp and pointed and for centuries hosts tried to stop guests picking their teeth with it after a meal. The dinner knife, a much less threatening implement with a rounded tip, is said to have been invented on May 13 1637 by the First Minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu. You’d think he had better things to do, but apparently one night at a dinner he saw a guest picking his teeth with a sharp knife and had had enough. He ordered all his knives ground down and rounded off to stop such disgusting behaviour. In 1669 King Louis XIV made it illegal for French cutlers to forge pointed dinner knives.
Spoons A camel does not drink from a spoon. Persian Proverb. That is so true yet you rarely see it written down. The spoon has been around since Palaeolithic times. Before some genius invented the spoon there is no doubt people used shells to scoop food if it was too hot to touch. The word spoon comes from Old Norse sponn, meaning “chip or splinter” so some probably used a bit of wood. After that you find the ancient Egyptians using spoons, the usual catalogue of Greeks and Romans, Indians and Muslims etc. Everyone thought the spoon was a cracking idea.
Who invented public lavatories?
When you get to my age life seems little more than one long march to and from the lavatory. Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925), English writer
Public lavatories have been a good idea since Roman times, when the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 AD) imposed a tax on urine sold from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. Urine contains ammonia and was used by washer women to keep togas white. People have been “spending a penny” in Britain since the Great Exhibition of 1851, when engineer George Jenningsinstalled the first public toilets at Crystal Palace. They were known as “monkey closets” and for a penny a visitor could get a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. My favourite loo story (oddly, I have several) concerns American actress Tallulah Bankhead (who died in 1968). She was in a cubicle in a public loo with no paper, so asked the woman next door if she had any. The woman didn’t. Tallulah then asked if she had any tissues. The woman did not. Finally Tallulah inquired, “My dear, have you two fives for a ten?”