Food isn’t just about what you eat; it’s also about how you eat it. All societies—from hunter-gatherer tribes to royal courts—have rituals of dinner.
Table manners, though they vary wildly from culture to culture, generally boil down to a couple of basic premises: mindful appreciation of food (we’re lucky to have it) and compassionate awareness of fellow eaters (we need each other). This isn’t to say that good manners can’t be put to bad use. Table manners, since time immemorial, have been perverted to enhance social status and reinforce class barriers. Manners can be the equivalent of a fraternity hazing, or at least an embarrassing stick in the eye to those who aren’t quite in the know.
In 1922, the same year Emily Post published her best-selling Etiquette, Lillian Eichler published the competing two-volume Book of Etiquette, advertised monthly in Redbook magazine via the soap-opera-like story of the social misadventures of Ted and Violet Creighton. In one particularly awful episode, Ted is being considered for a promotion, and he and Violet are invited to dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Brandon (Ted’s boss) along with Ted’s competitor for the job, a Mr. Roberts. It’s a dreadful meal. Ted does something (vague, but wrong) with his fork; Violet cuts her lettuce with a knife (a no-no), and then compounds the disaster by dropping the knife on the floor and reaching for it at the same time as the butler. (“Oh, it was humiliating, unbearable! They didn’t know what to do, how to act!”)
Needless to say, the impeccably behaved Mr. Roberts gets the job, and Ted and Violet—who would have been fine, if only they’d had the proper etiquette book—are consigned to social oblivion. It’s obvious, however, that the real villains of the piece are the Brandons, who deliberately conspired to make Ted and Violet feel like worms.
The History of Table Manners
The earliest known etiquette book was written in 2400 BCE by Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep, who—in his brief chapter on eating behavior—advises those invited to elite dinner parties to eat what’s given to them and to avoid staring at the host. It was the first of a long line of instructional tomes for the hopefully correct.
Erasmus, the Dutch classical scholar and cleric, wrote a manners book titled On the Civility of Children’s Conduct in 1530, addressed directly (and, at the time, unusually) to the young. In it, he touts the use of handkerchiefs (not sleeves), warns against staring (it makes you look stupid), and provides helpful hints such as, “It is equally impolite to lick greasy fingers or to wipe them on one’s tunic. You should wipe them with the napkin or on the tablecloth.” The book was the top best-seller of the 16th century—thousands bought it—and within a decade it had been translated into 22 languages. Eventually it ran to 130 editions.
George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company—a 110-point list copied as a schoolboy exercise—were based on a set of precepts composed by French Jesuits, many of which were taken directly from Erasmus. Helpful dinner-table rules include “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered,” “Feed not with Greediness,” “Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth,” and—every parent’s cry through the ages—“Drink not nor talk with your mouth full.”
Napkins and tablecloths played a more important role in dinner in the age before cutlery; in Erasmus’s day, polite diners made due with fingers and personal knives. According to food historian Margaret Visser, medieval napkins, which necessarily had to cope with a lot of finger-mopping, were the size of bath towels, designed to be draped protectively over the diner’s left shoulder and left arm. Tablecloths were a sign of wealth and status; these were, by preference, white, and the best came from Damascus in Syria. The worst of medieval insults, writes Visser, was to have the herald of an angry fellow knight approach at dinner and slit the tablecloth to the right and left of one’s place, thus indicating shameful isolation from the rest of the company. Given the cost of medieval table linens, she adds, this must also have seriously peeved the host.
Forks, Less Popular Than Knives and Spoons
Knives and spoons are of ancient lineage, but forks, historically speaking, are relatively new. The first known mention of a fork dates to the 11th century. Two-pronged and solid gold, it was the property of Theodora Anna Doukaina, a Byzantine princess married to Domenico Selvo, Doge of Venice. She later died of the plague, though St. Peter Damian, Bishop of Ostia—appalled by the fork—attributed her death to her “excessive delicacy” in eating.
The fork was an item of scorn and derision for the next several centuries—only silly or peculiar people used one—except in Italy, where it was found to be the ideal implement for eating pasta. The Elizabethans had tiny sucket forks, which had prongs at one end and a spoon at the other: these were intended for prying sticky sweetmeats (“suckets”) out of jars, then using the spoon to scoop out the sugary syrup. Queen Elizabeth I had forks, but preferred to use her fingers.
By the 1700s, forks were common on tables throughout Europe. A French etiquette manual of 1782 lists napkin, plate, goblet, knife, spoon, and fork as necessities for every dinner guest (“it would be utterly gross-mannered to do without any one of these”), though there continued to be anti-fork hold-outs. Nineteenth-century American dissenters, for example, sneered that eating peas with a fork was like eating soup with a knitting needle. On the other hand, when Grover Cleveland—elected president of the United States in 1894—was accused in print of eating his meals with a knife in lieu of a fork, he was so incensed that he refused to shake hands with the perpetrating editor.
How Important Is Etiquette?
The mid-19th century witnessed an explosion in the complexity of cutlery—the result of a sweeping change in the way in which dinner was served. Where meals were once served “French-style” (à la française), in which all dishes, higgledy-piggledy, were placed upon the table at once, starting in the 1830s, a Russian style of service (à la russe) was adopted, in which dishes were served in successive courses, each with separate arrays of appropriate tableware. The Victorians had knives, forks, and spoons for every conceivable comestible. There were bouillon, cream-soup, and aspic spoons, tea and (smaller) coffee spoons, egg spoons, grapefruit spoons, marrow spoons, and melon spoons; lobster forks, fruit forks, salad forks, ice-cream forks, strawberry forks, snail forks, and sardine forks. Serving implements were just as numerous: there were berry spoons, asparagus tongs, grape scissors, pie and cake servers, bon-bon scoops, and special spoons, scoops, and spades dedicated to everything from fried oysters to potato chips. It’s no wonder that the underlings on Downton Abbey spend so much time polishing the silverware.
This wealth of cutlery wasn’t simple to master, which plunged the uninitiated into a state that one food writer terms “fork anxiety,” torturous worry about committing a silverware faux pas. A (probably false, but compelling) story describes how France’s Cardinal Richelieu once unmasked an impostor at the banquet table because he ate his olives with a fork; and then there’s the chilling tale of the unhappy Ted and Violet.
The truth is that, in the world of correct behavior, using the wrong fork is not the end of the world. (Judith Martin, the incomparable Miss Manners, suggests that if such a thing happens, you simply lick the offending utensil clean and sneak it back onto the tablecloth when no one is looking.) Johns Hopkins professor Pier Forni, author of Choosing Civility, points out that in any case it’s not all about the forks: manners—rather than a game of “gotcha!”—are ultimately intended to show that other people’s feeling matter to you. The story of the hostess who, when a clueless guest drank from his finger bowl, promptly lifted her bowl and drank too is an object lesson in manners.
Mr. and Mrs. Brandon fail the test. They were just plain rude.
- Caldwell, Mark. A Short History of Rudeness. Picador, 1999.
- Forni, P.M. Choosing Civility. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
- Visser, Margaret. Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. Grove Press, 1991.
- Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. Basic Books, 2012.
- See George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.