As a child one of my duties, especially at my grandmother’s house, was to set the table for dinner. From an early age I learned how to properly place the silverware on each side of the plates as well as where to position the napkins and the glasses, the coffee cups and the salad plates. I always felt rather important as I gently opened my grandmother’s china cabinet to remove the lovely dishes that I needed. I handled them as though they might break in my fingers because they seemed so fragile.Then I went to the big wooden chest where she kept her silver and took out the gleaming knives, forks and spoons that she kept polished to a lovely luster. I was awestruck by how grand the setting always looked complete with a freshly laundered and ironed tablecloth. My grandmother went to great lengths to make dining a special time even on an ordinary day. She was definitely a master cook but the extra touches provided by her tableware made each meal taste even better.
My mother was a stickler for manners so she also taught me and my brothers how to behave when we were eating. She told us to never make negative comments about the food no matter what was being served. She also encouraged us to take small helpings at first and then go back for seconds only if we decided that we really liked the food. We were never to pile our plates high and then leave half of the items uneaten. Another hard and fast rule was never to talk with food in our mouths and to keep any conversation positive. We were to place a napkin on our laps and clean our mouths and our fingers with the cloth, not with our tongues. She even showed us the proper way to pass the bowls from one person to another and insisted that we use “please” and “thank you” with any requests that we had.
I have always felt comfortable dining even in the most elegant places because of the instructions and practice that my mother and grandmother gave me as a child. I sometimes wonder if children today are lucky enough to learn such things. The manners of fine dining sometimes seem to be outdated and yet they were designed to make everyone comfortable during a meal. Nobody did or said gross unappetizing things. Nobody insulted the cook. Nobody wasted food. It was a rather civilized and kind way of doing things.
Studies tells us that most people do not even eat together at a table anymore. I’ve noticed that young people have sometimes asked me where the various utensils go. I know that phones find their way to the table as do comments that might have landed me and my brothers in hot water. There is a much more casual and free atmosphere that may be relaxing but often feels less polite. Without table manners we become too much like the folks of the Middle Ages who ate with their hands and threw bones on the floor while belching with glee. Let’s face it nobody really wants to see something like that but my guess is that some people actually do encounter barbaric behavior at dinnertime.
Maybe we don’t need the fine china and silver and tablecloths but a bit of decorum never hurts in any situation. One of my daughters is of the mind that if we all followed the manners outlined in an etiquette book the world would have fewer conflicts. Rules for mannerly behavior were developed to demonstrate respect for one another. I can’t think of any reason why honoring the people we encounter with dignity is anything but a good thing. I would love to see more opportunities for young people to learn the ways of table manners and other tidbits of a more considerate way of doing things.
I realize that not everyone has fine china or silver. I had only stainless flatware until my mother died and left her silver to me. Many young folks no longer invest in china either but setting a paper plate with a plastic knife, fork and spoon in the correct place is all one really needs to learn a few tips about how to do things. More important are the rules for just being decent by staying positive, not being gross, being certain not to waste anything. Let’s face it, when we are eating it’s nice just to have a pleasant environment that is relaxing and kind. Surely such a situation makes for better digestion if nothing else.
Some of the very best memories of my childhood are associated with dinners at my grandmother’s home. The food was legendary but that is not what I most appreciated. It was the feeling that everyone at the table was special. All of the elements of table settings and manners created those incredible feelings that I had. The sharing and and kindness were as tasty as the food.
Breaking bread at a table has always been the supreme gift that we might offer one another. Eating together represents life and and healing. It has always been a very personal human experience especially when we follow rules that make it more special for everyone. Perhaps it is time we do more of that.