Keep your elbows off the table. Chew with your mouth closed. Use this fork, not that one. Table manners confound some and are religion to others. Are these rules and considerations outdated, or are they a vital part of a pleasant dining experience?
Manners are Unnatural
by Hilary Brumberg
In second grade, my teacher required that I memorize the following poem, entitled “Table Manners” by Gelett Burgess:
“The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth—
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop—are you?”
It is absolutely absurd that in the 21st Century, seven-year-old public school students are taught how and how not to eat. Not only do I still have this poem memorized over a decade later, but my etiquette training continued, and I am now a proud graduate of manners school.
From these two scarring experiences, I determined that while hygiene is very important, many rules of gastronomic etiquette are irrelevant, and they inhibit the eating process as a form of self-expression and indulgence.
Unless the Goops recently stuck their fingers into dog doo, it should be perfectly acceptable for them to lick their fingers. This goes for all other body parts and utensils as well. Food is very expensive, and chefs put a great deal of effort into their masterpieces. I would argue that it is actually worse etiquette for the Goops to leave delicious food on their digits and silverware—what a waste.
Additionally, humans and Goops were born with hands and mouths, not forks and knives. Using utensils to eat food is an insult to nature and to mothers, who worked very hard to create all of our body parts. It is borderline offensive and wasteful to use sharp, external metal objects instead of our soft, fleshy hands to transport food to one’s mouth. Anyway, food tastes way better with your hands.
I concede that there are certain occasions when fingers just don’t do the trick and forks are essential, like when consuming noodles or particularly messy foods. However, “proper” table settings—complete with three forks—are over the top. If you use the same mouth to eat your salad, entrée, and dessert, why can’t you use the same fork? All of the flavors will mix in your mouth anyway, so you might as well feed yourself with the same utensil. Multiple forks are not economically or environmentally practical because they require the purchase and dishwashing of significantly more items.
Meals are about more than food; they’re about the experience. The best meals I’ve enjoyed consisted of edible delicacies as well as stimulating conversation. The Goops have the right idea by talking while eating because they are enhancing their eating experience. Neither eating nor talking requires all of one’s concentration, so they might as well be done at once to save time.
While the Goops do not explicitly break this table manner in the poem, the rule that everyone at a party must wait for all dishes to come out before eating is also ridiculous. If you’re hungry and your food is hot, eat it. It’s not your fault that your dining companions ordered the most elaborate dishes on the menu, and we are all mature enough to wait for our own food while others dig in.
In sum, rules of hygiene are outdated and restrictive. Food is food, and the way you eat it shouldn’t matter.
In Favor of Manners
by Eden Jablon
Long days of classes, TA sessions, and meetings can give us the urge to retreat to our rooms and inhale some comforting sustenance from the safety of our beds. Time is another barrier to refined eating; many times, I’ve run between classes with a sandwich in hand, sloppily hurrying to consume my meal on the go. That said, when I do settle down to eat a meal, there is simply no excuse for a lack of basic table manners.
I readily admit that some table manners seem stupid. Not leaning elbows on the table, for example, can seem baseless. According to many historians, the trend developed in the Middle Ages as a way to communicate strength. Why would that sort of etiquette be important today?
Manners can be understood as a polite and established way of interacting with others. Dorothea Johnson, author of “The Little Book of Etiquette,” points out that manners have existed as long as people have, and they are exhibited in the behaviors of most species. For example, when crows perch on a wire, they will always be in order of rank.
Manners are considered standard for good reason. They create a framework for the meal by keeping everyone comfortable. They are vital in a professional capacity, and they enrich the taste of food.
But manners can be used to keep everyone comfortable during casual as well as professional and extravagant meals. While eating with someone—be it at Usdan, Mondo, or Taco Bell—you have certain expectations. As a general rule, you trust your tablemates not to do anything that would cause you to lose your appetite. Food spilling out of someone’s mouth is never attractive, nor is savagely tearing at food with bare hands, even when it takes longer to use a fork and knife.
At formal meals, manners also serve to reduce awkwardness. The rules of fine dining are detailed, which leaves little room for uncertainty. As part of a larger network, these rules outline the course of the meal, helping it go more smoothly.
Even if you have no regard for the comfort of your friends, professional meals are a compelling reason to practice good table manners regularly. In a food-centric culture, business meetings frequently center on meals. In a school as small as Wesleyan, there are abundant opportunities to eat with professors as well. While grace at the table does not translate into success as a student or capability as a professional, someone who eats in a considerate way has an easier time convincing others of their skills.
Additionally, manners can enhance the taste of the food itself. Many times, I’ve zoned out while eating and found myself idly twirling some morsel between my fingers. Even more horrifying, I have consumed entire meals and retained absolutely no memory of the meal. Table etiquette brings with it a conscious awareness of your food that fosters genuine appreciation and demands that attention be given to the cuisine itself.
At the end of the day, we all enjoy the occasional sit-down with a bag of chips, chewing with abandon in front of the television. That is absolutely fine. However, when you join the public for a meal, don’t leave your table manners behind.