I’ve been meaning to write a post on table manners for ages. The idea first popped into my head when I read an article on the topic in the SMH late last year. Then earlier this year, I sat across the table from a person who shocked me with their horrendous table manners – they just didn’t seem like the kind of person who would shovel and spit… But now I’ve finally sat down to nut this issue out because last night while I watched My Kitchen Rules, I saw something that made me laugh til I nearly cried.
The MKR teams were cooking the picnic challenge and after spending an hour an a half in the MKR kitchen, frantically preparing cold salads and colourful, but transportable dishes, they jumped on water taxis, headed out to Goat Island and served up their picnic food to general-public punters as part of the Crave Food Festival.
There I was, comfy on my couch, joining Pete and Manu on the judging panel, when all of a sudden I was confronted with a full-frontal potato shove. Chubby kid, holding his fork like a dagger, shoves a whole potato-salad potato in his mouth, in one – really big – go. He was going to get that potato in whole, if his life depended on it.
This potato shove made me ask myself the question that I think the kid was asking himself at the same moment – why use a knife and cut it into bits, if you can get it in whole?
In our house growing up, the threat behind the teaching of table manners was “imagine if the Queen showed up for dinner tomorrow, you need to be ready, so you should always practice good table manners”. My brother and I usually had some witty comeback to keep Mum on her toes, but deep down we knew there was truth behind the argument (kinda like the one about always wearing your good undies, just in case you end up in hospital…).
The basics were always – no elbows on the table, don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t wave your knife & fork in the air, don’t eat with your mouth open, knife & fork side by side & in the middle once you’re finished, don’t lick your knife, you can’t leave the table until everyone is finished, no slurping and last but not least, you have to eat everything on your plate (coz there are starving children in Africa…)!
While all the others are straight forward, make sense and certainly lead to a more pleasurable dining experience (if not for you, at least for those eating with you), the ‘eat everything on your plate’ rule has come back to haunt me, because as portion sizes have gotten bigger over the years, so has my waistline. And while I have friends who sensibly leave (sometimes large) parts of their meal neatly at the side of their plate when their body tells them they’ve had enough, I keep ploughing on until my plate is so clean and shiny, I can check my reflection for any poppy seeds or parsley in my teeth. And all because it’s bad to waste food when there are people starving in a country that’s too far away for me to Australia Post my leftovers to them…
Then there are more particular issues such as which side of the plate should one eat soup from – the inside or the outside? Inside is easier and more obvious, but the away-side is what the Queen would do. And what about serviettes (or napkins, if you prefer) – should they automatically be included when the table is set (in my house, as it was in my childhood home, always, every time, never a doubt), but I’ve discovered that’s not always the way and often marvel at how people, even when provided with a serviette, can get through an entire meal without actually wiping their mouth. Hell, I’ve been known to use my serviette in the bib-style even when I’m not eating mussels or spaghetti, so a meal without a serviette leaves me feeling a little lost and my pants a little greasy from hand wipes under the table.
The thing is, table manners are different in every household. Well, actually they’re different in every country. Whereas I was taught not to eat things with my hands (apart from the obvious like sandwiches or sausage rolls), there are countries where it’s rude if you don’t. Some cultures see it as an insult to the chef if the food is not eaten with fingers, shovelled straight from plate to mouth, in a get down low and go-go-go style.
It’s the same with talking at the dinner table. While I was told not to talk with my mouth full, I certainly would find it strange to sit at a dinner party in silence. So much of the joy of eating and entertaining is in the conversations around the table – but in between mouthfuls and avoiding spitting and slopping wherever possible, of course. But again, some cultures prefer to sit in silence during a meal, savouring the flavour and quietly appreciating the effort that’s been put into the meal. And then there are the people who moan and groan, mouths bulging, as they communicate their pleasure and appreciation. It would be nothing for them to let out a loud belch at the end, as a compliment to the chef.
So while I sit at Sunday dinners with my younger brother and sister and watch them try to tackle the complexities of table manners – sometimes with a fork waved here, a knife pointed there, a soup slurped, a mouth overstuffed and an elbow on the table (usually mine!) – it seems to me that when it comes to table manners, it’s really a case of common sense and love your neighbour, so they don’t end up with a piece of rice in their hair and you don’t end up with Bolognese sauce down your front. And sometimes you just need to remember that you’re actually on camera and maybe that’s when it’s best to act like you’re at dinner with the Queen and avoid the whole-potato shove where possible.