Food and People: The Rules of Engagement (manners)

Andrew Wolf, one of San Francisco’s established front of the house giants, recently stepped back from the dining room to instruct diners on how to eat in a restaurant. His decades in in the front of some of the City’s best restaurants had obviously given him proof enough that more than a few  people needed it.

Mr Wolfe

Andrew’s video and blog tips are pretty basic: Take off your hat, put your napkin in your lap, don’t put your wallet on the table, don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t shout at the waiter. He includes finer points such as the correct position of knife and fork to show that you are finished with your meal (He got it wrong), and which fork goes first.

We disagreed on the elbows issue. Mr Wolfe feels that one needs to keep the table in a restaurant free to allow the servers to work more easily, while I feel that I am renting the table and will tip the servers more than I am comfortable giving, so they can either work around me or ask me nicely to make room. I find, in fact, the elbow rule only slightly more inane than the American practice  of keeping one’s hand in one’s lap – something which upset my German friends terribly before they broke me of the habit. (What are you doing with your hand down there?)

I had never thought much about manners, assuming that their purpose was to keep us from killing each other over the last piece of bread, spreading disease or disgusting our friends, so that we would all end up alone. Wondering what lay behind the more obtuse rules of culinary engagement, I set out to check with the usual Google search, The results were the standard know-nothing blather blog:  “Manners have been with us since the dawn of time.”  (Not) “Manners are a social necessity.” (Neither).

I hit pay dirt,  however, at the local library, where the librarian culled out a pile of books which showed me that I didn’t know anything about manners – that the concept, meaning and origin of manners – either.

Manners, as it turns out, at least in literature about as learned as I am capable of digesting, have nothing to do with food safety or the maintenance of civil peace and avoidance of violence. Etiquette is not altruistic behavior. Quite the opposite, it is self-serving – from its inception to its current practice it’s function is self preservation.

Manners, etiquette and courtesy, says a German sociologist  named Norbert Elias, traveled from Italy to northern Europe somewhere around the early 12th century. They were not, as common wisdom supposes, an altruistic equalizing force stemming from any kind of instinctive civility, nor are they rooted in a desire to prevent discord, violence or disease.

On the contrary, manners in the dark ages through at least the seventeenth century were the purview of the privileged, or to be more exact the court. They were exclusive an exclusionary. Their desired function was to please the King or Prince, or whatever lead wolf or potentate sat at the head of the table and to move the well mannered courtier closer to his liege, who had the power to destroy capriciously those who did not please him and give their land, women and other chattel to those who did.

The words we use for them say as much: Courtesy stems from Old French corteis, or of the court, chivalry from Old French chivalerie, the customs of knighthood, and etiquette from Old French, from estiquette. Today in most Indo-European languages etiquette means “label” – in this case the label of class and sophistication.

Medieval formalized decorum and propriety, such as they were (and they weren’t much), were the secret handshakes of powerful sycophants toadying to despots – the ticket to top placement at the courts and inner circles of nobility.

Elias translates admonishing verses of a dozen or so manners gurus from Italy to England  from Latin, Old English and Middle High German. The guidelines of the first and most prominent, Erasmus of Rotterdam, reveals in De Civilitate Norum Puerilum in 1530  images of a frankly downright revolting dining culture. Your errant knight was also a profligate pig.

Remember that luxuries like plates, forks, individual cups and spoons and napkins were non existent at the time. Each noble diner brought his own knife and possibly a napkin (they are mentioned) there was a cloth on the table. Food was served in common bowls and placed on trenchers – squares of bread. Tortillas come to mind. Diners drank from the same tankard, supped with one or a few spoons, dipped their hands into the common bowl, after doing God knows what with them. Erasmus admonishes  his readers not to do God knows what at table, indicating that they, of course, did.

Erasmus and the rest of the etiquette writers instruct their readers not to dip bread they have already bitten off into the pot, not to blow their noses on the table cloth (use the sleeve), not to scratch their bodies then reach into the bowl, use the spoon, not your hand, not to show “the parts of the body”, pick your nose while eating, don’t spit food back into the common vessel, to leave the room for other bodily functions, cough to cover up the sound of passing wind, and to check that the seat is not “soiled” before sitting down.

Reading Elias will ruin every historic medieval movie food scene you have ever seen or will see. Camelot’s banquet couldn’t be further from historical fact. Tom Jones was never that delicate at dinner. Robin Hood did not politely pass the leg of mutton.  The table behavior bar for the courtly was shockingly low.  All one had to do to keep the potentate happy and thus protect one’s own interests was to refrain from being thoroughly disgusting.

Of course my ancestors did not participate in these relative niceties, nor, probably did yours. The foundation of the concept of etiquette is exclusionary. Keep out the plebs, which was us and probably  you. What table cloth? What table, for that matter? My folk (and probably yours) were all seated on a dirt floor grabbing gruel from some vessel while they scratched themselves wherever, and it didn’t bother them a bit. They were, in fact,forbidden to assume some of the courtly modes.

Elias indicates that there was (and is) really  no rhyme or reason behind manners. They are self-perpetuating. Their initial necessity lay not in practicality, but in the need for the idle, pragmatically useless and frequently barbaric noble classes to distinguish themselves from the “industrial classes”, the people who actually did things.  Evolution was driven not by new social and scientific insights but by approximately the same engine that drives fashion and teenage slang: Once something becomes wide spread, the cool insiders have to come up with something new. “My liege, everyone is now using forks! Even the weavers!  What shall we do?” “Quelle Horreur! But wait! I have it! Let’s make another fork and make it shorter. We’ll tell them they have to use if for fish! That’ll shake out the pretenders for a while.”

The rules of dining engagement initially forbidden for plebeians eventually trickled down through the lower classes (most of us) as the industrial classes rose to wealth and influence and after the French and American Revolution. Rather than being the result of social evolution, they are a symptom, and Elias uses them to illustrate “The Civilizing Process”, the name of his book.  Your ancestors were not easily grossed out, but with the passage of time our capacity for revulsion and sense of modesty and shame increased as our tolerance of physical exhibits dwindled; we are today, in short, more easily disgusted and more private.

There is, despite all of the urban mythology, old wives’ tales, and general nonsense regarding the origins of various customs no clear practical or historical reason for us not to put our elbows on the table, our hand in our lap or our salad plate on the left. The world will not stop spinning if you use the wrong fork. There is no reason you can’t eat your peas with your knife – as Margaret Visser points out in her exhaustive treatise on eating behavior, The Rituals of dinner, it is not to protect you from getting speared. You never poke yourself with your fork, after all.

Most of our behavioral codes are rooted more in social frippery and conceit than considerate concern for our table mates. They are the badge of the inaugurated, the kids at the cool table, the ticket – etiquette – to the higher rungs. They give us reason and right to exclude those who don’t own the key. They may be in part empty form, but they are universally accepted empty form. Anyone aspiring to sit at the cool kids’ table has to know them.

Andrew Wolfe is not Erasmus. For one thing he writes conveniently in English, but the two writers have a fair amount in common: They write from experience.  They saw/have seen a substantial number of people who don’t know the rules – who blew their noses on the table cloth or drop their gym bag on the table.

Their respective writings serve the same purpose. They better people not necessarily morally but socially and financially. If manners began as a way to gain wealth or avoid ruin (or torture, death and loss of wife, daughter and other chattel) they continue as the key to the kingdom. The practice of vetting job candidates by inviting them and their wives to dinner and watching their behavior declined after business meal tax deductions were drastically reduced, but etiquette, whether it makes sense or not, can work for or against anyone in the business world.

People know this, and because they do, there is a tradition and ongoing market for etiquette instruction. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt built their brands on democratizing and rationalizing the hitherto exclusive codes of manners to an upwardly mobile nation. Judith Martin is still syndicated.  Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge’s 1788 German etiquette encyclopedia is still in print and widely read today in German speaking countries. Oddly, it is available in the San Francisco public library only in Korean and Chinese translations. Go figure.

Our global era, whose social forms are in the flux of equal rights and gender equality  has given rise to hundreds of niche manners publications. People read them because they are the key to not only social but to career and financial success. Manners and etiquette are still the ticket to power or to courting it. They are ways to get ahead.

Etiquette Maven Syndi Said

Andy Wolfe’s site and skilled videos are, in this sense a social service. I don’t always agree with his points, but that probably speaks to the middling state of my own practical manners. So is the exquisite work of Syndi Said, whose etiquette lessons for young business graduates and gangling teens provide the polish needed to survive and feel comfortable in formal dining situations, and with that a key to the keepers of power. She early realized that young people with  career track tech degrees straight from the Pizza and Jolt Cola dorm dining culture were smart enough to realize sooner or later the need to fit in the places of power and career ascension. She also realized that mothers wanted this for their children, who were more likely to be impressed at a formal manners training lunch with a stranger than by their own constant, “Jacob! Close your mouth when you chew and don’t drink form the carton!” nagging.

The two etiquette pundits  are worth a look. So are a number of books I read for this post  – not etiquette guides, but  investigations into how the customs of eating reflect our society, culture, politics and history, which will take you far beyond the code of the table and shine new lights on war, gender relations, isolationism and social trends for the last ten or so centuries. Since much of the above is culled from a few authors, I have put  together an informal bibliography. Manners, as it turns out, are history. They are pretty fascinating.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply