(At least as close to a bibliography as we are going to get here). As much of what here is based on something someone else wrote, it seems appropriate to give them credit and make the sources available to you.
A while ago I was about to slap down something about the source of our etiquette. It occurred to me that what I know, with a few exceptions from a grad school seminar, come from the kind of beer mug philosophy which begets urban myths, so I thought it might be entertaining and wise to do a little web research on the subject and reached out to the great junk heap in the ether. Google for once did not come through.
What I found was surprising flip and uninformed, trite, vapid, self congratulatory twaddle: “Manners have been with since the beginning of time,” said one aspiring etiquette pundit. (Hint – they haven’t. We weren’t even with us since the beginning of time, unless amoebae tucked teeny napkins under their chins). Not having got to the two millionth Google entry on manners, I can’t say for sure there is nothing worth viewing on their history and social meaning on the web, but I’d say the smart money is against that.
Norbert Elias: The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners. Fortunately, there are books on the source of our eating mannerisms, although precious few on the history and rationale behind etiquette. There’s not a lot in general distribution, but Norbert Elias, a German Sociologist, chose to use manners to illustrate the development of social and political structure through the history of the Western World. His eye opening work The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, most likely required reading for any number of graduate sociology seminars, recounts the state and lack of manners, their function and their evolution through quotations from nearly every European writer on forks, napkins and where to blow your nose. (Not the table cloth). You will never see a film or read a book on a medieval subject the same way again. (They were a really, really rough lot – read it or the blog to come to see how much so.)Despite being academic, it is an extremely readable book with a wealth of insights into western dining culture as it interlaces with society and history. Don’t let the phrases “psychogenis and sociagenisis (social and political structure) scare you. The rest of the books is an easy read. The history of Manners has seen numerous editions and currently sells in paperback for about $50, or get it from your local library. It’s worth a run through.
Richard Wrangham: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. Published by Basic Books, 2009. Hard cover about $27. Wrangham’s comment on “culinary promiscuity” (random sex is ok in many primitive societies, but sharing food with non family taboo) kicked this blog into existence. Wrangham, a Primatologist, covers not only the physical and social evolution of man from apelike ancestors, influenced by fire, but our social development – gender roles, social structure and lack of chaos – as formed over centuries by the culture of the hearth. He is a fascinating speaker, but writes in occasionally excruciating detail, so an ability to skip long tracts on the human gut is an advantage in reading it. None the less, the insights he provides on how we got to be as we are and why we live as we do are occasionally downright epiphanal. You will come away with a new sense of our human identity and lots of the kind of addictive evolutionary trivia you would expect of Cliff on Cheers. A bit stiff in the style, it provides a ton of interesting facts and theories. Now for about $15 on Amazon or at your public library.
Bunny Crumpacker (I kid you not), The Sex life of Food. Thomas Dunne Books. Currently about $12 on Amazon. It looked interesting. It is not. For MS Crumpacker the world of food and probably everything else is a double entendre. Or just an entendre. Everything is sex and sexual for her. The Sex Life of Food is one of the worst books I have ever read, mostly because i drop bad books after a few pages. (I read Mein Kampf when I was 13, which takes first place in rotten books category hands down – It was in the Sarah Dix Hamlin library and I wanted to read something German.) I hoped however, to find something useful. I did not. MS Crumpacker begins by cataloging endless lists of foods as either female (flat and soft) or male (stiff and long) and goes downhill from there on a tedious slide of cliches and bromides, Freudian quips and sexual theory that belongs in “Running with Scissors”. Maurice Sendak, whose In the Night Kitchen MS Crumpacker interprets as metaphor for a wet dream (milk) gave it a good review. Don’t believe him. Crumpacker is obviously well read and provides some terrific quotes from the likes of MK Fisher, poorly paraphrasing The Civilizing Process and plagiarizing his collection of translations of Medieval etiquette directives for many pages.* Did you know that everything in fairy tales is sexual? Jack’s beanstalk is a…oh, figure it out for yourself. If you want to OD on vacuous erotic innuendo, don’t waste your time here. This is not a sexy book, nor, from my ever faster reading, a very accurate one. Still, it’s in the library, so don’t waste about 12 bucks if you absolutely have to read it. (Bunny…as in Playboy?)
*Plagiarizing: If MS Crumpacker reads Middle High German, Latin and Middle English, I will apologize. (I do, oddly enough, but no Latin.) The quotes cited are word for word as they appear in Elias’s translation, and the rest of the chapter reads like an R rated 7th grad book review.
Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner. Viking. 448 pages. A highly accessible sociological and political tome on manners, taboos and customs of the table covering a vast array of practices and beliefs around the world and through time. Visser, whose writing is at times a bit too thorough and often thoroughly entertaining, studies the interpersonal, social and political impact and meaning of table customs. Her commentary encompasses such topics as the power hierarchy of the dinner party and the gender politics of food and dining. The book is impressively researched in the literature of a variety of disciplines and language. Her treatment of Elias’ work is extensive and a times enlightening. Highly recommended, despite the occasional anthropology overload.
David Kamp: The United States of Arugula. The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. Random House. 416 Pages. Did you know that James Beard worked for the Jolly Green Giant, that one Brooklyn grocery store son with the help of an interior designer turned a nation that wouldn’t eat garlic into sun dried tomato and pesto fans, or that we our much of our current culinary range to spooks, the Army and WWII? This is a fascinating collection of food fact and trivia, much of which contradict our mythical beliefs in how we got where we are. A great airplane read with the one flow that the final forty or so pages are taken straight from Alice Waters’ media kit with little insight into the deeper and independent grass roots and leading figures of the new food movement.