Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mugwumps and Fork Etiquette

Are table manners by and large a thing of the past in America, even in the most affluent homes? If table manners are indeed going the way of the dinosaur and in a downward spiral like the newspaper, is this a thing to be lamented? I remember some of the practices taught to me in my middle-class upbringing: fork on the left, spoon to the right of the knife. I always imagined the more feminine spoon protecting the knife, as if chess pieces or characters from Lewis Carroll's imagination. I remember that it is important to place the napkin on the lap. That it is polite to wait for the host before eating. Mouths should be closed when chewing. Mouths should be free of food before speaking. I didn't learn the proper use of salad forks until after I worked as a waiter at a restaurant with table cloths. I learned how to place my silverware on the plate to indicate that I was finished after visiting Australia, which is a different way from America.
Perhaps in America it was only ever the well educated and comfortably affluent that observed practices such as the proper fork to use and the correct placing of silverware on the plate when finished. Most Americans probably felt fortunate to possess a single silver fork for each person at the table. We chide the stuffy affluent for being snobs for insisting on proper table manners - but then, what do we have as humans if we don't have a proper way to do things? The proper way to do things is something that endears me to Europe. It is what I would appreciate in the tradition laden culture of Japan, or for that matter most anyplace in the world - the art of living is what stands out. The means by which we do things is what life is about. This is the art of life, the highest form of art - living with thoughtfulness and intention. Our table manners says something about our eating habits and our way of being: slow or fast; appreciated and shared or quick and meaningless; prepared and wholesome or hasty and unhealthy.
A friend of mine had a family that dressed for dinner every evening. Men in ties, cloth napkins and probably candle-light. This might be a tad overkill, but you can be sure of one thing: dinner was an event. Table manners were expected, conversation was too, and shared food together was the crowning moment of a day lived with intention and attention to the means.

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