When I was a lad, there were plenty of "rules" surrounding the fundamental business of eating. I guess it was the same in many British households. It was somehow as if by dining correctly one would win brownie points on the nation's leaderboard of manners. I was lucky to grow up in a loving home. There was laughter and love and an absence of physical chastisement. However, at mealtimes - which were always taken round the dining table - there was an unwritten list of rules that you were expected to obey. Let me see if I can remember the main ones:-
- Sit up straight at the table and do not slouch.
- Elbows on the table are not allowed.
- Keep your elbows tucked by your sides.
- Don't talk with your mouth full.
- Close your mouth when eating.
- No burping or making other unpleasant noises.
- If you want something passed to you, always say "please" and then "thank you".
- The fork should be held in the left hand with tines facing downwards.
- The knife should be held in the right hand, with your index finger pressed down on the blunt side to assist any cutting required.
- Hold your fork and knife in your hands until the meal is finished.
- To show you have finished your meal, put the knife and fork together to the left of your plate.
- If you need to leave the table, ask to be excused by saying: "Please may leave the table?"
On a daily basis, these rules overshadowed our lives much more vividly than the ten commandments. As I say, we were never hit by our parents but our mother's expressions of displeasure at the dining table could be positively canine - nay lupine. "What do you say?" - "ELBOWS!" - "Close your mouth! We don't want to see what you're eating!" etc.. We all got the message and hence as we grew older most mealtimes were trouble-free.
We lived televisonless till 1960 - something that I remain very grateful for. I remember watching a black and white American show. Sergeant Bilko was eating with a fork turned upwards in an unholy fashion. He was using it as a little shovel to fill his mouth. "It's disgusting!" judged my mother peering up from her intricate glove-making. She had met several Americans in the early forties - before she was posted to India with the Women's Royal Airforce - and had observed their casual eating habits first-hand. The USA might have become the richest and most powerful nation on Earth but so what if its citizens didn't have proper table manners?
With our own children, we were rather more relaxed though some of the rules remained. Shirley had grown up with a very similar code for dining. We always had meals round the table - and still do - without distraction from televisions or radios. Our view is that people should relish their food and enjoy the business of eating. The dining table is a place where a family can come together and talk between mouthfuls - catch up on the day and one's immediate plans. We detest the idea of meals balanced on knees with eyes glued to the latest trashy TV programme. Eating like that, how could you possibly relish your food? And family conversation would disappear to be replaced by inane comments from the deplorable Simon Cowell or Scooby Doo.