I hope my U.S. readers enjoyed a tasty Thanksgiving feast yesterday, and I hope my readers elsewhere in the world had some nice meals, too!
For our final November post, I’d like to talk about dining customs. When, where, and how we eat our meals are the kinds of things we take for granted, assuming that everyone does it more or less the same way — but of course that isn’t true.
Let’s start with “when.” How many meals do you eat in a day? Three has become the standard for many of us . . . but it also depends on how you define a meal. In Britain, for example, you might have breakfast, lunch, tea, and then supper, with “tea” occupying an ambiguous zone between a meal and a snack. Hobbits famously eat six meals a day: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, and supper, at least according to one list I found. The less fortunate (or less gluttonous) might get by on just two, or even one.
The timing of those varies, too — to the point where we’ve coined words like “brunch” for a meal that lands in the disputed zone between breakfast and lunch. In eighteenth century England, five o’clock was a fashionably late hour for dinner; if you stayed up past sunset, you might have a lighter supper (not synonymous then with “dinner”) later on. Given that I often work until two or three o’clock in the morning, I eat what Taco Bell has abominably dubbed “fourthmeal” around midnight, so I don’t wind up going sixteen hours or more without food.
Which meal is the biggest one? For us sedentary types it’s often dinner; by contrast, farm folk might eat a much heartier breakfast to fuel themselves for a strenuous day. As for what goes in it, that varies widely by the time of day and part of the world. American breakfasts these days tend to be sweet, but if you stay in a European hotel you’ll see a wide array of meats and cheeses among the baked goods and jam, and in Japan a traditional breakfast might include miso soup and salmon. For non-vegetarians in the U.S., a dinner without animal protein might feel like it’s lacking something, so ingrained is the “meat and side dish” model in our consciousness. Meanwhile, rice is fundamental enough to Japanese cuisine that the word for its cooked form (pronounced either gohan or meshi) also just means “meal” — because without rice, have you really had a meal?
Then there’s the question of how you eat it. In my household, when we’re trying to pick a restaurant for dinner, we sometimes approach it by asking ourselves whether we’re in a mood for forks, chopsticks, or just picking stuff up in our hands. (It sounds silly, but it helps narrow the field to certain types of cuisine.) Knives, spoons, and chopsticks are all ancient, but forks are a remarkably recent invention: as cooking utensils they’ve been around for a long time, but they didn’t become popular for eating with until roughly the 10th century in the Middle East, the 14th century in Italy, and as late as the 18th century elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. In some parts of the world you may not even use utensils at all, at least not of a durable kind: Ethiopian cuisine, for example, uses pieces of flatbread as an edible means of conveying food to the mouth.
How about where you eat? My husband and I bought a house last year, and for the first time in our adult lives, we have an actual table to eat at. Prior to that, our meals were set on tray tables or just our laps, because the space the architect had intended to be our dining area was instead taken up by bookshelves. Larger houses (like the one I grew up in) may have a kitchen table for casual meals, and then a separate dining room for more formal events.
But sitting in a chair at a table is a very western model of doing things. In East Asia, you’re traditionally more likely to be on a cushion on the floor — these days restaurants may have a footwell underneath, as a concession to the decreased familiarity with kneeling. Formal banquets there didn’t involve huge tables that seated dozens, but instead separate small tables for each diner, which could be added and taken away as needed. And then in fancy Roman society you weren’t even sitting upright; you took your meals in triclinia, reclining on your left side as you ate.
Which brings us to handedness. Although left-handed people make up roughly ten percent of the population, many societies stigmatize the use of the left hand, especially in certain matters of etiquette — which includes eating. When the left hand is associated with cleaning oneself after defecation (as in Islam and other cultures), you can understand why eating with the right hand would be preferred.
And then, of course, dining customs can be used to express hierarchy. In Jackie Chan’s autobiography, he mentions that the school he trained at served the eldest students first, with the platters working their way down the tables by order of seniority. The result was that the youngest students often got nothing but rice, all of the meat and vegetables having been taken by their superiors. The head of a household often gets the choicest cuts — or a guest does, if one is in attendance. And it’s common for diners to hold off on starting their meal until the highest-ranking person present, whether that’s the head of household, a guest, a boss, or the most senior member of an organization, has begun to eat.
Gender plays a role here, too. Even in our theoretically equal modern era, women often feel subconscious or overt pressure to order low-calorie meals or eat very daintily when in public, especially at major events — and then go home and devour something else to make up the deficit. In gender-segregated societies, women might not eat in the presence of men at all, taking their meals separately, often later, and perhaps from lesser options — echoing the hierarchy from Jackie Chan’s school. (The same thing may apply to children.) By contrast, nineteenth-century society had fairly strict etiquette about how to properly mix genders at formal meals, and gentlemen were expected to assist and defer to ladies in various respects.
So take a look around, the next time you have a casual breakfast with your family or dinner in a restaurant or a lunch banquet at some work event. What kinds of spoken and unspoken rules guide how you eat? How do they differ based on context? And how many of them have changed from how things were done in the past?