A thousand years ago the Chinese had an entirely codified kitchen while the French were still gnawing on bones and throwing their rubbish on the floor. Chopsticks have been around since the fourth century B.C. Forks didn’t show up in England until 1611, and even then they weren’t meant for eating but just to hold the meat still while you hacked at it with your knife!
Many table rules, i.e. manners, were established during the Renaissance era to help establish order in polite European society. Prior to this dinner guests ate with the three middle fingers of their non dominant hand, or with stale bread fashioned into a spoon like shape, and brought their own knives to the table for cutting meat. The blades of said knives were to be facing away from their dining companions or would be seen as a threat, with the ensuing bloody battles and even death before dinner very common. People of our Grandmothers’ generation still found an outward facing knife blade to be exceptionally rude.
When forks were introduced to the English in the 1600’s they were initially viewed as excessively refined or, in the case of men, a sign of effeminacy. The newfangled fork custom began in Italy and was a hit, but forks were slow to catch on in Northern Europe. The use of forks to get food from plate to mouth didn’t gain wide acceptance until the 17th century—and even then, only the well-to-do could afford them. When the trend finally took off, it was a case off BYO fork with guests out forking each other with the level of carving, bejewelling and decoration.
The introduction of forks also brought with it the introduction of an elbowless table. Initially this wasn’t about being rude at all, it was simply because this new refined way of eating now demanded the attention of 2 implements simultaneously, and guests were usually seated at very close quarters. It was simply practical. The practice of no elbows developed into the 19th century notion that any part of your arm resting on the table during a polite meal was considered exceptionally rude. As children we were trained to rest our hands in our napkin covered laps between each mouthful with our knife and fork, resting prongs up and apart, on the edge of our plate.
In light of this quick history lesson, I’ve rounded out a list of today’s modern table manners that should see you through meeting the in-laws and dining at Aria.
1. When invited to dine at a private residence, always take a gift for the Hostess.
A bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or a jar of that jam you made yesterday. Never, ever give a bunch of flowers. Flowers mean extra work and she will feel obliged to arrange them to show you her appreciation but inside she will be cursing your arrival, especially if you’ve also arrived early.
2. When faced with rows of cutlery, work from the outside in. Stemware; inside out. The bread and butter plate on your left is yours.
3. If you’re setting the table, knife blades should still be facing in. You don’t want to get his Nanna offside.
4. Serviettes are PAPER and are perfectly acceptable for a breakfast or luncheon table. Napkins are usually linen or at least cotton but always cloth and always for dinner and never fluorescent green or used to blow your nose.
5. Napkins are placed on your knee as soon as you are seated and neatly placed on the right of your set place if you rise to refresh yourself. NEVER crumpled and dumped haphazardly. This is an insult to your hostess.
6. Elbows are still off the table. Food is raised on your fork with your left hand to your mouth with a slight lean in over your plate should their be the risk of a drip. Knifes are only used to cut your food or butter your bread. Never, ever hug your plate with your left hand and shovel your food in with your right whilst leaning so far in, your almost touching your plate with your nose.
7. No matter what, ALWAYS eat with your mouth closed. If we wanted a smoothie for breakfast, we would have ordered one. Please finish one mouthful of food and swallow BEFORE refilling for the same reason.
8. Cutlery set apart on your plate means you’re still eating. Knife and fork together on your plate means you’re finished and crossed over means you’d like more. If your waitperson has asked if you’re finished and you growl “No!”, take a quick look at what your cutlery is saying.
9. No devices on the table.
10. No devices on the table.
In spite of trying to polish social customs, some human behaviours were deemed permissible at the dinner table. On farting, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.” Slick, no?