The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser: Manners Maketh the Man
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If you are new to this book, I envy you. Reading Margaret Visser for the first time is like biting into a sharp delicious fruit with an uncommon flavour and mind-expanding effects.
So writes Bee Wilson in her incisive introduction to Visser’s prize-winning classic, The Rituals of Dinner, re-issued this month in celebration of its 25th anniversary.
The Rituals of Dinner is not an encyclopedia of etiquette, although it would certainly serve you well as such. Nor is it a fluffy book about setting the scene with candles and the like, although again, it is spilling over with useful and inspirational information. The Rituals of Dinner is a treatise on how we humans complicate the manner in which we eat and why we have always done so. This book is a fascinating study, rich with historical references and a bibliography stretching to 28 pages. Visser has consumed vast quantities of literature on the subjects of anthropology, manners and food-related rituals and presented readily digestible facts and anecdotes in bite-sized nuggets.
Many were the methods of preparing a man as a meal.
Not the usual opener for a book on table manners, is it? Visser begins with an unstinting look at the rituals of cannibalism. She lays out, "a veritable smorgasboard of methods used for cooking people," including appetisers of sucked blood and still-beating hearts. The Aztecs, it seems, pretty much took the biscuit in terms of quantity of human flesh consumed. In one memorable recipe, "the flesh was cooked with peppers and tomatoes, and served up upon bowls of maize."
It’s quite enough to put you off your dinner and therein, argues Visser, lies the root of all our rules and niceties.
Behind every rule of table etiquette lurks the determination of each person present to be a diner, not a dish.
We are strongly discouraged from raising our eating implements in any threatening pose, we turn our blunt-ended knife inwards and never lick it, we don’t point at our companions or stare longingly at their share of the food, we defer to our host and remain seated in our place. Our good manners, in other words, are "a system of taboos to ensure that violence remains out of the question."
As highly intelligent beings, we are extremely sensitive to signals of danger and feel particularly at risk when we are eating. To allay our anxiety, we prescribe rituals of behaviour and, so long as everyone behaves, we can relax and enjoy our dinner. To knowingly break the rules is an aggressive gesture; to display ignorance of the rules is a sign of not belonging, to the culture, club or social class, or worse still, a signal of madness.
The Rituals of Dinner will heighten your awareness of ritual, whether eating with your own community or enjoying an invitation to share in the traditions of another culture, and provide you with a fascinating insight into the reasoning behind a plethora of rules and mannerisms.
Have you ever wondered why we raise our glasses in a toast? Why is it called a toast? And what has toast got to do with hob-nobbing? Who invented the fork? What is humble pie? And what does it mean to be seated below the salt?
It is a sign of good-breeding to come to the table well-stocked with interesting conversational tit-bits and this is most certainly the book to feed your stores.
Restaurateurs, chefs, society hostesses, and food writers will all find a mine of information and inspiration between the covers of this book. Margaret Visser provides parents with renewed impetus to teach their children to behave as they should, to be in other words, well-bred. She reminds the upwardly mobile, those who may be wanting in breeding or good taste, why it is essential , to act comme il faut.
These ideas may strike you as painfully old-fashioned but they have, in fact, never been more important. Visser argues that a relaxation of the strict codes of conduct makes it even more vital to have an understanding of how our behaviour affects how we are viewed by our companions (companions, from Latin, meaning those with whom we eat bread).
Meat feeds, cloth cleeds but manners maketh the man.
Far from being pointless remnants of stodgier times, our rules of civility continue to play an essential role in society. While few of us own a full canteen of cutlery, we continue to judge and be judged. It does no harm to remind ourselves, our children, and perhaps even our political leaders of the importance of good manners:
Polite behaviour is ritual performed for the sake of other people, and for the sake of our relationship with other people. Its purpose is to please and soothe them, especially where a rough passage is to be feared; to recognize and supply their need for esteem and comfort; to get one’s way without arousing resentment.
The Rituals of Dinner is essential reading for anyone who takes food seriously.