New Worlds: Dining Customs

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.

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20 Responses to New Worlds: Dining Customs

  1. Hanneke says:

    One thing that is changed: eating while walking around in public. In my mom’s day this didn’t happen, except perhaps for an icecream cone. Nowadays, walking through a mall, you see lots of people walking around while munching on stuff; I’ve even heard it called “grazing”, eating a bit here and there when you see something you like, as opposed to sitting down to a full prepared meal at fixed times.

    It’s still the unspoken rule that if there isn’t quite enough for everybody, then the hostess will claim (if necessary, pretend) she doesn’t want any, or only a little bit, so the guests will feel free to take the last whatever. If she’s been sampling while preparing this may well be true, but even if it isn’t most hostesses still pretend it is.

    • Good point about portable food! And now I’m wondering how common that was in the more distant past — certainly you might buy your food streetside, but did people tend to walk and eat, or hunker down somewhere until they were done?

      And yes about the hostess. Hosts, too, but I feel like there’s a bit of gendered weight there (hospitality + the pressure for women to eat like birds + female self-sacrifice), at least in western society.

    • Mary says:

      The host in “The Unexpected Party” of The Hobbit has a horrifying moment where he realized that if he didn’t have to go around, it would be HIS duty to go without.

  2. At least when I was living and working in London, there was also “elevenses”, when the nice lady with the tea trolley and platter of biscuits and muffins rolled past and all work ceased for fifteen minutes. 15:01 and your tea was drunk and you were back at work–none of this drinking-while-you-work nonsense.

  3. Back when Lady Diana Spencer became the Princess of Wales, one of the docu-dramas about her had a scene with the Queen Mother telling her, that she must watch all the other diners at any occasion. Even if the princess was full, not interested in the food, whatever, she could not put down her fork until the others were clearly done. Because once she set down her cutlery, as the highest ranking person there, the meal was finished and all must rise and allow her to exit to whatever came next.

    • Oh, yes! And that must create interesting dynamics with the other pressures mentioned above — hospitality means leaving plenty for the other diners (probably not an issue at the level of British royalty), women shouldn’t eat too much in public lest they look gluttonous, etc — the amount of thought she had to put into exactly how fast and how much to eat must have been absurd.

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  5. Alyc says:

    My (Irish) grandmother used to tell me about my great grandmother’s experience of having dinners of ‘potatoes and point’. The idea was that no matter how poor you were, if you could put meat on the table then you weren’t REALLY poor. So for meals, they’d hall out a hunk of salted meat (pork/bacon?) to put on the table. And then they would eat their potatoes and point at the meat. Only when guests were over would a tiny sliver of the salted meat get carved off to be given to the guest.

    I’m not certain that was doing the guest any favors. Every time I hear Ellen Klages’ ‘Scary Ham’ story, I imagine that’s what the ‘point’ in potatoes and point must have looked like.

  6. Mary says:

    Technically, dinner was the main meal of the day, and supper a latter, lighter meal for when you had a mid-day dinner, just as lunch was an earlier, lighter meal for when dinner was evening.

  7. Yoon Ha Lee says:

    Korean “breakfast” has rice and banchan (“sides”) the same as another meal.

    Street food is very common in Seoul and I used to eat it while walking no problem. It ranged from boiled silkworms (I never had those; my mom said they weren’t very good) to odeng (“fishcakes”?) to ricecakes in hot sauce to fried pancakes stuffed with melted sugar and nuts and daechu (jujubes) to roasted chestnuts.

    One time I made dinner for American/Caucasian housemates when I was in college and we had a brief misunderstanding–oldest American housemate was expecting me to eat first because I had made the meal and was the “host(ess)” (was not out then), I was waiting for *him* to eat first because he was oldest (as I had learned in Korea)!

    • Yes, the collision of expectations can cause problems! Like if you think that failing to clean your plate is rude, but your host reads the empty plate as signaling that you want more food . . .

      • Yoon Ha Lee says:

        That exact thing happened to Joe when he visited his German relatives in Germany as a…teen (?). He thought he was politely cleaning his plate, they thought he was still hungry. A few plates and a complaining overstuffed stomach later, he figured it out…^_^

  8. Cat Kimbriel says:

    I remember visiting with my grandmother when she lived in Dallas. She enjoyed fine dining and could afford it, so she would take us out for dinner at a really nice place. If we were having a drink in the bar while waiting for a table, we always sat at an actual table or booth–and when the hostess came for us, she would abandon her drink. The first time I was ready to take mine as I had barely touched it, and she quickly told me that a lady never walked through a restaurant carrying a glass of liquor.

    “They’ll bring it,” she told me. And they did! I often wonder if a restaurant would still bring me my drink, if I did that, or if I’d lose it.

    • My parents took us to a couple of very nice restaurants in Dallas when I was growing up so that we would be familiar with the atmosphere and know how to behave. We were too young for cocktails, though. 🙂

  9. Koby says:

    My grandmother used to say that good guest was one who offered to help, complimented the food, and asked for a third serving. But that comes from a culture of plenty, of course – as noted above, others might find it rude to eat so much, or even to offer help when you’re clearly a guest.

    At the school I work at, we have formal Sabbath meals, and the students need to set the tables (with our supervision). Every time I find the forks on the right side and the knives on the left I cringe. And in general, whenever I see the blades of the knives turned outwards rather than inwards (towards the plate), I wince – I still remember my grandmother explaining how rude that was.
    The worse part comes when they serve – I have to remind them every time that the first place they should bring out the food to is the headmaster, the guests, and the other teachers at the meal, and only then to their friends or where they’re sitting.

    Of course, then there’s the matter of who eats first, not eating until everyone is seated, and so forth and so on… dining etiquette is very important.

    • Huh — I’m surprised that even the basic place setting goes wrong that often! Tripping up on the order of the, I dunno, shrimp fork vs asparagus fork, sure, but I would expect that the basic left/right division would be pretty ingrained.

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