The time of pompous tables, rows of cutlery and never ending table manners is over, unless you’re a politician or some kind of royalty. Even fine dining has moved away from white tablecloths and black tie waiters. This article is all about letting go. It’s time to relax and enjoy the experience. Dive into my manifesto on eating for the sake of enjoying food.
For an always creative person like myself, there’s nothing worse than conformity. Thankfully, I was born in the right period. And, with age, I came to care less what other people think of me. But I remember the days when I sat at a table as stiff as the starched, cardboard-like tablecloth. I stared at the rows of cutlery and blamed my family for not taking me into the high world of dining early enough. I judged myself and everyone around me. I waited for others to start, then copied whatever they were doing. When you’re feeling deeply uncomfortable and like a total neophyte, copying is, really, your best bet.
The importance of the socio-historic context
In all fairness, I like to think that even The Queen could pick up a burger and eat it with her majesty’s hands, letting all of those delectable juices drip onto her brightly coloured clothes. At the end of the day, it is said that one should judge a burger’s quality by how much of the juice drips onto your arms when eating it. Plus, it’s 2019.
I also like to think that cooks got their head chopped off, if they served a burger under chubby cherubs painted on the ceiling and accompanied by imperious table settings during the Renaissance. Not that burgers even existed at that point, since some say they’re a 19th Century invention. But let’s be honest, having meat between some bread isn’t exactly a culinary innovation of recent times!
Blame it on the 1500s
This pompous eating etiquette, with rows of cutlery and towers of plates was born during the Renaissance period. It seems pretty obvious, that eating with your hands, then wiping them onto the tablecloth (like during Medieval times), would contradict the overly flourished tableware and chubby cherubs I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
If you ask me, following the Renaissance eating etiquette is like sticking to steam engines in a world of high speed, electric trains. But who am I to judge, if that’s your thing? As long as you don’t feast upon swans stuffed with various animals and dye your tights with saffron to appear golden, then behead your wives, like Henry VIII.
Enjoy your food
Experiential eating is more important than ever. And using all your senses to enjoy food has become the topic of many books and studies. At his restaurant in Bangkok, Gaggan serves a dish that you have to lift, then lick it up. As long as chefs encourage you to do that, why worry about using a knife and fork when eating a burger?
I’m not saying that you should ignore all social construct and use your hand to spoon out the soup from your bowl. In some settings, you may have to behave in a certain way. But it’s important to enjoy the experience of eating and not let it cause anxiety. Unless your table manners would accurately match Rabelais’ descriptions of gargantuan feasts… in which case you should reconsider them entirely.
Eating means respect
What you find acceptable, others may not. And, being constantly precious about your food will most likely not take you anywhere.
Respecting the culture
Italians would feel offended by someone eating pizza with a knife and fork. You should fold the inner tip of the triangle onto the slice, then fold the slice in two, and accept that your hands may get dirty. After all, there’s a reason why soap was invented.
Sushi chefs would feel offended by someone letting their beautiful sushi take a deep-dive into a bowl of soy sauce. Or by someone eating a piece of sushi in two bites. And let’s not even get to the chopstick stabbing, an absolute sacrilege for the Japanese.
Respect the culture where that food comes from. Rather than your personality leading your etiquette, let the food do that for you.
Respecting the ingredient and technique
More often than not, chefs will judge you for ordering your steak well done, and give you the worst piece they’ve got in the kitchen.
Why? Because cooking it more than medium destroys the beauty of a good steak. And, your request to cook it well done undermines the ingredient and effort that goes into preparing it well. Plus, a well done steak will hide some of the faults a medium rare one would not.
And, speaking of disrespecting the food, the chef (and your neighbour on top of that)… what about cutting everything into little soldiers before eating them?
Unless you’re a child (or preparing food for one), your rational mind should give you a little common sense. For one, the food will get cold (despite the fact that the chef made sure to serve it warm and prepare it well). Also, cutting and eating will help you have a more balanced conversation at the table, since you can talk while cutting and listen while chewing.
To me, cutting before eating is worse than the time someone who yelled at the ketchup for jumping onto their shirt and staining it…
Respecting thy neighbour
Gainesville, Georgia passed a law that doesn’t allow you to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork. Ask yourself: what are your hands made for? And definitely do not wrestle those poor pieces of chicken with your knife and fork. Or else this will turn into a cacophony of loud noises, a broken plate and frustrated neighbours. Plus, your piece of chicken may slip away and end up on the floor.
Likewise, unless you’re dining with someone with a fetish for chewed-up food, keep your mouth closed when eating. And, unless you’re impersonating this giraffe, try to keep your chewing sounds to a low. Because others may wish to hear their own chewing sounds rather than yours. Plus, you never know when your loud noises are your neighbour’s biggest phobia.
It’s all about common sense
My many restaurant visits taught me one thing: as long as I use my common sense, all will be well. Yes, some expert in Renaissance table etiquette may find what I do appalling by their standards. But what I’ve realised is, that the vast majority of us share the same worries and insecurities around the table.
All you need to do is take a step back and stop asking yourself (or your neighbour) so many questions. Do you feel like eating something with your hand? Go ahead, since I presume your rational mind won’t give you an urge to dive into a turnedo rossini or a beef stew with your bare hands. Would you like to have a spoon to enjoy the leftover sauce of your salad? Go ahead, and ask for a spoon. Are you confused whether to eat dessert with the fork or the spoon? Just pick whichever seems the most logical and practical to you.
No matter what you do, remember to respect the ingredients you are consuming, the people you are dining with and the culture where the food comes from. Other than that, relax, and enjoy your meal.