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There was a time, in Ancient Rome, when it was customary to eat with only three fingers, while leaving the ring finger and little finger uninvolved. Only a person lacking sophistication and grace used all five fingers. With the morphing of Rome’s political ideologies from a kingdom to a republic to an empire came the acquisition of new territories and cultures and with them, an awareness of culinary diversity which included dining behavior or what we refer to as table manners.
Around the sixth century BC, finger bowls and napkins came into vogue. Dinner guests, not wishing to offend the host, showed good manners by wrapping some food in a napkin to take away with them since it was considered bad manners to leave empty-handed.
For centuries, people ate from a household community plate called a “trencher,” a wooden board or platter upon which food was carved and served. While the wealthy served food in trenchers of silver or pewter, those who were not so wealthy used wooden trenchers. The very poor substituted a hollowed out loaf of bread. Diners would scoop out the food with their fingers and sop up the juices with pieces of bread. The idea of table manners did not come to light until much later. For the most part, people concentrating on filling their bellies were oblivious to those around them and anyone who practiced some type of etiquette was looked upon as a pretentious snob.
As time went on, people became more circumspect and the thought of several people digging into a common dish with their fingers prompted a suggestion that they should do so with clean hands. So it became a practice to wash one’s hands in the open where everyone could see and be assured that all participants were eating with clean hands.
Eventually, lists of rules were established specifying what diners should not do during the meal, such as: don’t put your fingers in your ear or put your hands on your head, or blow your nose with your hand. It was suggested that men should refrain from “scratching.” Common dining atrocities included people blowing their noses or spitting across the table or putting bones back on the platter after they have eaten the meat off of them. And besides burping, the “release of wind” at the table eventually came to be frowned upon.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that our dining habits experienced an abrupt change. By the 1500s, individual plates and forks were introduced to society bringing an end to the trencher. But it wasn’t until the middle of the 1500s that a published guide suggesting the dos and don’ts of behavior first made its appearance.
It was a treatise called Il Galateo, overo de ‘Costume or Etiquette: The Rules of Polite Behavior, written by Giovanni Della Casa, a Florentine poet and diplomat. The work was said to have been the most celebrated book on etiquette in European history and dealt with topics ranging from fashion to conversation, suggesting that a person combine an exterior grace with a necessary social conformity. Apart from the subject of table manners, this influential guide discussed the appropriateness of dress as well as other observances of decorum.
Della Casa’s writings suggested that “...one must not mention, do, or think anything that invokes images in the mind that are dirty or disreputable” and “good manners are a virtue for achieving the esteem of others. Our manners are attractive when we regard others’ pleasure and not our own delight.”
He further advised, “Do not reveal by your gestures that you have just returned from the bathroom, do not blow your nose and look into the handkerchief. Avoid spitting and yawning.”
A person with bad manners may be thought of as having little or no concern for those around him or simply not being aware of his own behavior. In Italian, good manners translates as buona educazione and bad manners as cattiva educazione, referring directly to the person’s education in terms of self awareness. So it is not surprising that Giovanni Della Casa alludes to education by his use of the word, “intelligence” when he wrote, “One must constantly attend to appearance, speech and conduct so as to give no offense but also to convey a graceful reserve and intelligence.”
This concept seems to be reinforced by a popular phrase used during Della Casa’s time to describe a person who was looked upon as being crude and awkward in polite society and said to be lacking in intelligence by “not knowing the Galateo.”
Since the days of Ancient Rome, social interaction seems to have evolved into an art form and more. Where at one time we simply sought to avoid offending others, we now concern ourselves with the paranoia-producing faux pas which comes from simply using the wrong fork.
During a formal dining, it is quite possible to find settings of nine utensils staring you in the face along with a soup bowl, salad bowl, fish dish, dinner dish, bread plate and glasses for water, red wine, and white wine and a cup and saucer. Anyone interested in knowing how it works can find this information online or just follow a simple rule: Start with the utensil farthest from the plate and work your way in toward the plate with the service of each new course. Caution: This system is not foolproof since place settings may vary, depending on the menu. But above all, do not be intimidated. There’s a good probability that the person sitting next to you is no more knowledgeable about the proper sequential use of eating utensils than you are.
Although finger bowls are occasionally still in use, they very seldom come to our attention unless something drastic happens, which brings me to an interesting story.
It seems that Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was hosting a formal banquet which included a number of prominent foreign dignitaries. During the meal, finger bowls were set out for each guest for the purpose of cleaning the fingers before going on to the next course. A foreign dignitary, unfamiliar with the rules, took up his spoon and began to sip the contents of the finger bowl as though it were soup. The collective impact on the horrified guests did not escape Her Majesty’s notice. To avoid any embarrassment to her guest, she simply picked up her spoon and sipped the water from her own finger bowl, to which all the other guests responded in kind. Now that’s what I call good manners.