Friday, March 14, 2014

Tidbits on the Evolution of America's Table Manners and Dining Etiquette

Manners for Colonists and Early Travelers
Depiction of Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony

At Plymouth Colony standards of deportment were established from readings of the poet Richard Braithwait's The English Gentleman and Description of a Good Wife, (1619). From the beginning, American society struggled with questions of identity, debating whether to create a uniquely American code of etiquette or merely to perpetuate the customs of the mother country. Eleazar Moody's School of Good Manners, (1715) did little to differentiate New Englander's manners from those of their cousins in Britain.

In 1883, People's Publishing Company compiled Australian Etiquette or the Rules and Usages of the Best Society in the Australian Colonies, a standard home guidebook concerning dinner parties, table conversation, and requirements a fine dining.  The book served a self-conscious populous generally ridiculed by the supercilious English for its convict and laboring-class backgrounds. As Victorian manners reach the island nation, those who were moving up from billy tea to silverware and china had reason to study manners in private lest they humiliate themselves in public.
Mandan Feast ~ "The simple feast which was spread before us consisted of three dishes only, two of which were served in wooden bowls, and the third in an earthen vessel of their own manufacture, somewhat in shape of a bread-tray in our own country. This last contained a quantity of pem-I-can and marrow fat; and one of the former held a fine brace of buffalo ribs, delightfully roasted; and the other was filled with a kind of paste or pudding, made of the flour of the "pomme hlanche", as the French call it, a delicious turnip of the prairie, finely flavored with the buffalo berries, which are collected in great quantities in this country, and used with divers dishes in cooking, as we in civilized countries use dried currants, which they very much resemble." from Catlin's Letters and Notes

Travelers and explorers sometimes encountered customs that, although different from their own, prompted admiration. While living alone among the Mandan, the US artist George Catlin, known for his depictions of Plains Indian life, remarked on the style of dining that allowed sitting cross-legged or reclining with the feet drawn close under the body.  He noted that the Indian women gracefully served the diners and reseated themselves in a movement that allowed them modesty and poise at the same time that it left their hands free for lifting and maneuvering dishes.
A Canadian Inuit

More common for those traveling or living in unfamiliar climes were manners that struck the visitors as unsanitary-- or worse. Sir William Edward Parry, Arctic expeditioner to the Canadian north from 1819-1822, saw Eskimo etiquette from the point of view of a polite Englishman from the Regency Period.  He describes how, when serving of food from the "ootkooseek" (cook pot) during a meal, the woman of the house lifted a lump of cooked meat with her fingers and handed it to the man of the house, who began the repast.  After clenching the mass between his teeth, he sliced of a portion and passed both knife and remaining meat to the next diner. 

Another traveler, George French Angas, author of A Ramble Through Malta and Sicily in the Autumn of 1841, recoiled from the energetic eating style of villagers in Scaletta, Sicily. Upon arrival at a family cottage, he received a large dish of macaroni, which he thought was his personal serving: "To my surprise and astonishment, the whole family stood round me and began to demolish it with wooden forks, cramming in as much as possible into their mouths as fast as possible, then dexterously pushing in the depending filaments with their fingers. This is the true Sicilian mode of eating macaroni, though certainly not the most polite." When the hostess served him an individual trencher, he noted that she sprinkled some salt on top of the portion with her fingers, another example of plebeian manners.
 
Communal American family dining

The communal dining style common in farm families of North America dictated an etiquette suited to time and place. The absence of serving pieces required some restructuring of formal rules of table service.  Aunt Betsy's Rule, and How It Worked, 1863, issued by the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School, explained the use of personal knife and fork for removing meat, potatoes, vegetables, and pudding from a single shared dish. The text added, in the same way, a piece of bread or better was cut, and the tip of the knife dipped in the salt. The pitcher of water was passed around the table, and all drank from it.

The Shakers, who lived and worked in communes in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Ohio, observed a strict separation of the sexes in the commune refectory. Rules for the clan required that all wait until the elder begin eating. Diners cut their meat into square and equal parts and took some of all foods on their plates. They clean their plates and "shakered" them by laying knife fork and bones to one side before scraping up crumbs.  The rules of the table mandated covering the nose and mouth with a handkerchief when sneezing or coughing, using a clean knife to cut butter, and swallowing chewed food and using a napkin before speaking or drinking.

In the 1880s, works such as social etiquette of New York demonstrated that the ongoing debate between traditional European manners and new American ways favored the Continent. In the late 19th century however, Americans began to become comfortable with themselves and formulate their own rules for formal table setting, serving, and eating.


Mid-19th to Early 20th Century items designed for eating Victorian green corn
The serving in eating of corn on the cob has been an enduring issue for American authorities on table manners. In Hints on Etiquette, 1844, Charles Day decreed that rather than gnaw at the cob, the diner should scrape the kernels into his or her plate and eat them with a fork. Frederick Stokes, Good Form: Dinners Ceremonious and Unceremonious, 1890, contrasted the crude gnawing from end to end with the more polite grasping with a folded napkin or doily. Food writer and Ladies Home Journal editor Sarah Tyson Rorer, America's first dietitian, proposed more demanding method of scoring each row of kernels and pressing out the content with the teeth, leaving the hulls attached to the cob. The ever practical Emily Post simply discounted corn on the cob as suitable food for formal dining.


Cross-Cultural Etiquette Quandaries into the Twentieth Century

 
Making blue torillas

Meetings between cultures often produced table quandaries.  On first contact with Southwestern cuisine, Susan Shelby Magoffin, the prim well bred daughter of Governor Isaac Shelby and author of Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, 1846, was dubious of a blue tortilla wrapped in a napkin. Knowing better than to insult her hosts, she ate the odd colored dish without protest but wrote of the experience, "Oh, how my heart second, to say nothing of my stomach."  it did not take long for her to discover that refinements such as eating utensils could easily be dispensed with: As Southwestern Native said done for centuries she learn to fold a tortilla and use it as a food scoop.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, as the global economy pressed more Western business people into contact with the cultures of Japan, West Africa, India, and the Middle East, a demand rose for guides to unfamiliar dining experiences. American and English visitors ponder the proper way to remove their shoes before entering a Japanese or Turkish home and how to signal the chopsticks were unfamiliar and awkward. One of the most surprising taboos of the Sahara, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East, the prohibition against the use of the left hand for eating, seemed strange to people accustom to dining with both hands.  Once foreigners learned that people in these societies traditionally used the right hand for dining and left hand to perform toilet hygiene, the custom became understandable. To assist guests with these one-handed operations, Bangladeshi hostesses is typically distributed basins for before-and after-dinner hand washing and remained on hand to serve plates rather than to join diners. In Botswana, before the table blessing, the business of the ritual hand washing fell to young girls, who filled a basin from an urn and extended a towel to diners.

In compliance with Islamic law, dutiful Muslims have traditionally welcomed any strangers seeking hospitality. Food writer Claudia Roden, author of A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, 1985, explained the obligation of the Muslim cook to cater to diners' tastes. Guests customarily acknowledged the cook's effort and tasted what was offered to them, eating from the edge of a communal platter rather than serving themselves from the middle. Before ending a meal, the host circulated the communal "guerba" (beverage container) of milk or water -- but not wine, which the Koran forbids. The polite diner refrained from breathing into the liquid. After the vessel made its round, participants relaxed with coffee and tobacco.

 From Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by Mary Ellen Snodgrass