BOOKS

Mindful of manners

An author explores the rites of the table

CECILY ROSS July 22 1991
BOOKS

Mindful of manners

An author explores the rites of the table

CECILY ROSS July 22 1991

Mindful of manners

BOOKS

An author explores the rites of the table

THE RITUALS OF DINNER: THE ORIGINS, EVOLUTION, ECCENTRICITIES AND MEANING OF TABLE MANNERS By Margaret Visser (HarperCollins, 432 pages, $26.95)

An alternative title for Margaret Visser’s new book might be Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Table Manners (But Were Glad You Didn’t Ask). Indeed, much of The Rituals of Dinner is distinctly unappetizing. A follow-up to her acclaimed first excursion into food lore, Much Depends on Dinner (1986), Visser’s latest book opens with a detailed treatise on cannibalism practices among the Aztecs in 16th-century Mexico, the ancient Maoris in New Zealand and the ferocious Carib Indians of Brazil. According to Visser, “people have indeed been boiled in pots, and roasted by spit, rack or exposure to an open fire. They have also been steam-baked, cooked on preheated rocks and in

earth ovens, smoked, decomposed first, dried, powdered, preserved, stuffed into bamboo tubes and placed in the embers, their bones burned to ashes and stirred into many kinds of sauces, juices and mashes.” From there, the author moves to a lengthy discussion of the ritual sacrifice of animals and a discussion of the etiquette of vomiting.

Visser, who regularly explores the anthropology of everyday life in spots on CBC Radio’s Morningside and in columns for Saturday Night magazine, has in her new book managed to elevate table manners into a matter of cosmic importance. A fundamental principle running through all societies, she argues, is the sense that a meal “evolves and progresses in an orderly fashion, tells a tale, symbolizes life, society, the cosmos, paradise.” Visser moves briskly from Victorian dining rooms to prerevolutionary Chinese banquets to Sunday dinners in rural Canada. Her culinary tour proceeds in a disarming if somewhat disorderly

fashion that is reminiscent of the conversation at a chaotic family dinner.

The book is organized around two central chapters that examine the formal dinner party. As the event progresses, from the ritual crossing of the threshold until the final morsel of dessert disappears, Visser examines the origins and meanings of details that most people take for granted. On why candles are a mainstay at formal dinners, she writes: “For millennia, we sat round a fire to eat, and fires remain for us symbolic of the group which gathers round for light and warmth.” She covers such topics as the use of table linens and observes that “napkins, in our culture, are to be kept clean—a wholly unreasonable requirement in view of the purpose for which napkins were designed in the first place.”

Other sections of the book explore the formalities of meals in other cultures and eras. In some societies, people did not use napkins at all—they wiped their hands in their hair. But the Flathead Indians of Montana, Visser writes, thought that it was rude to do so if they had been eating fish. She outlines the elaborate etiquette surrounding the use of Japanese chopsticks, which decrees that diners must never lick or bite them. Only one mouthful of rice is to be taken between every two bites of meat, fish or vegetables. And mannerly diners never “fish about” for choice morsels.

Visser’s observations on eating aboard airplanes are particularly apt and amusing. Writes the author: “Manners, here, impose passivity and constraint; ornamentation is taken care of by the oddity of our being served dinner at all in such circumstances. There is no question of argument, and only very limited choice. Airline passengers are extraordinarily docile and uncomplaining. They give up space and ceremony, believing that this is only fair since they are

gaining time and ought to be grateful for safety.”

Visser’s wide-ranging study also explores the impact of religion and superstition on manners. The book contains explanations of the rites associated with Passover and with the

Eucharist, an event she calls “undoubtedly the most significance-charged dinner ritual ever devised.” And she describes the 19th-century Parisian phenomenon of “fourteenths”—hired men who “waited at home between 5 and 9 p.m. every night all dressed up and ready to step into the breach where any dinner party threatened suddenly to number 13.”

The Rituals of Dinner is full of fascinating tidbits that taken alone are fun and provocative. At one point, Visser reminds diners that anyone who wears perfume at a gourmet dinner “has no idea how to behave—perfume fights the bouquet of the wine.” But consumed in one sitting, the book reads like an elaborate and chaotic menu that, instead of tantalizing, actually curbs the appetite with the sheer volume of material. And although Visser’s prose is light and accessible, her claims are at times grandiose. The notion that candles are refined bonfires is persuasive, but when she goes on to say that they represent “spans of time for us: a lifetime, with the flame as life itself, fragile but still alight,” she pushes their cosmic significance too far. Still, much of the book is delightfully colorful and concrete. Visser offers an anecdote about a Canadian waitress who, while serving a member of the Royal Family, advised: “Keep your fork, Duke, there’s pie.” The story underscores Miss Manners’s declaration that “forks are not that difficult.” Figuring out the cosmos is.

CECILY ROSS