January 13, 2010

Man at Table

‘You must sit up straight at the table, like a little prince, until everybody else has finished’, said Mother. This comment was typically met with an irksome visage, expressive of frustration at seemingly pointless rituals. I was a boy, brimming over with surplus energy, and with plenty of rigorous derring-do with which to be getting on. Sitting still in a chair, waiting for the lazy mastication of my elders and betters, was a trial. The key to being released from this polite obligation was the observance of another one, in the phrase: ‘Please may I be excused’. Rough and tumble resumed with alacrity. And kids never suffer from indigestion.

These were valuable lessons. There were many more besides, reinforced daily as the price of home cooking. The end in mind was never convincing to my child mind: ‘One day you’ll be invited to business dinners, or job interviews, and you wouldn’t want to be judged for the way in which you hold your fork, would you?’ The emphasis was always negative. There were no points for doing things correctly; only penalties for getting it wrong. It has not exactly turned out that way. Mother vastly overestimated what kind of courtly instruction was being doled out in the other homes. As the social playing field has levelled, one’s boss is as likely to hail from dung-heap stock as he is wont to stutter for the silver spoon in his teeth. I know this only too well, and Mother foresaw it. But she expected things to level up, and I needed to make the grade. It rather seems, lamentably, that things levelled down.

Behaving with dignity at table is much more likely to be noticed as exceptional these days. You may be applauded for it, but you may also be mocked. The cut and thrust world, so it seems, has superseded the more delicate manoeuvrings of the knife and fork. One is lucky ever to see a soup spoon (pictured), let alone a fish knife. And why do so many places expect me to recycle my cutlery from an appetizer and use it again on a main? Would you pour white wine into a drained glass of red? Well, so it seems, perhaps you might. Cutlery is symbolically important, as well as being functionally integral to the process of nourishment. Leave your knife and fork in a certain way, and you declare to the room that you are finished. Plates should not be cleared away until everyone’s irons are likewise arranged. In restaurants this rule is dead. Why won’t wait staff actually wait? As I am forced to fidget in my seat by the constant interference of intrusive servers, they occasionally moot the words ‘excuse me’. Well, for once, no you may not be excused.


  1. If you're really smart you don't have soup spoons in the house. You drink it from the side of an over-sized dessert spoon. And do remember what Betjeman wrote witheringly about fish knives! I think sitting up straight at the table is one of the most important things.
    My other pet hate is only being given a spoon to eat my dessert. A fork is a must - unless of course it be tackled with a teaspoon. When I was at boarding school, we were never allowed to put the fork (I am talking about dessert now) in our mouths - so cruel to hungry children!

  2. Fish knives as mere instruments of affect, especially if one must 'phone' for them, would indeed be gauche. As functionally preferable instruments for eating fish, however, they are sadly missed. I share your hatred for the unaccompanied spoon with dessert. Chasing pudding with a spoon is so frustrating; it seems as if one is being invited to stick one's fingers in the plate.


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