20 August 2010


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:-
  1. Sit up straight at the table and do not slouch.
  2. Elbows on the table are not allowed.
  3. Keep your elbows tucked by your sides.
  4. Don't talk with your mouth full.
  5. Close your mouth when eating.
  6. No burping or making other unpleasant noises.
  7. If you want something passed to you, always say "please" and then "thank you".
  8. The fork should be held in the left hand with tines facing downwards.
  9. The knife should be held in the right hand, with your index finger pressed down on the blunt side to assist any cutting required.
  10. Hold your fork and knife in your hands until the meal is finished.
  11. To show you have finished your meal, put the knife and fork together to the left of your plate.
  12. 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.


  1. Elizabeth9:54 am

    I'm with you and Shirley all the way on this one, YP. We eat around the dining table, too, and some of our most treasured family conversations have taken place over meal times.x

  2. My childhood memories are much the same as yours and the table rules too.
    We always ate at the table as a family but now there's only two of us we sometimes,if the type of meal allows it, eat our tea in front of the tele I'm afraid.

  3. I still don't understand the reasoning behind no elbows on tables.

    As for placing cutlery when finished, I recall that etiquette says there are two positions. Crossed aligned 6 to 12 o'clock to signify that you have finished or to the side,3 to 9 o'clock, to show that you haven't finished or are expecting more.

    It's rather sad today to see kids that can only seem to cope with a fork. Or a McDonald's wrapper.

  4. In the U.S., holding one's knife and fork throughout the entire meal would be considered bad manners. Rather too eager a pose, I guess.

    People in the state of Virginia (the first permanent English colony in the New World) still eat British style, though. Everywhere else it's fork in the left hand, knife in the right, cut the food, lay down the knife, switch hands with the fork, lift food and fork to one's mouth like Phil Silvers, change hands with the fork, pick up the knife, cut the food, lay down the knife, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. Notice that I do not say ad nauseam because that depends solely on how well the food has been prepared.

  5. I never thought of these habits as 'rules', they were just the way we [and everyone else] ate at home. [We didn't have all these rules exactly the same as yours, we were allowed 180 degree flexibility in the fork holding].
    It's only now that I have children of my own that I am having to enforce these 'habits'. I must admit I also give in from time to time and let them eat while they watch the telly.

  6. Both of my husband's grandfathers came from Cornwall to the United States. Most of the things on your list were things that he enforced at our dining table. I don't remember a time when we all ate together that he wasn't haranguing Bob to "lean over your plate!" By the time Bob was 12 we'd all stopped eating together, it was the only way to get some peace. We had no TV, I threw that away when Bob was 10. Now I see that the dinnertime ritual wasn't something John made up, it was something he inherited.

    Overall it wasn't a bad thing, the kid has impeccable manners, you can take (or send) him anywhere. He observes and adapts to whatever style the hosts are using, so in India he used his hands like everyone else.

    I think it's a problem for children who have never even learned that there ARE standards for things. They go through life oblivious to the fact that better-trained people are mocking them.

    There was only one rule I enforced at the dinner table: when you are finished, take your plate and utensils to the sink and wash them yourself. In our house, if you use it, you wash it. Guests are also expected to do that. For all the young men who are traumatized by the thought of actual washing a dish, I have an alternative choice: paper plates.

  7. ELIZABETH I think that all families should adopt this mealtime habit where possible.
    HELEN Bad Helen! No more telly meals young lady!
    SPARROTS I didn't realise that they had knives and forks in Lancashire. I thought they only had troughs filled with Lancashire hot-pot.
    MR RHYMES Virginia - named after our famous virgin queen. Clearly the only civilised state in the union. I went into a McDonalds in Macon Georgia once and asked for a plate and a knife and fork but they looked at me as if I was mad.
    MICHAEL Hey! Cool, progressive dad! Get your boys away from that damned TV and use the table. That's why you have one!
    JAN BLAWAT Thank you for this little insight into Californian etiquette. Not so struck on the idea of washing up. Ever heard of dishwashers?

  8. Guys always assume the women are the dishwashers. I think everyone should be responsible for cleaning up after themselves. If anything, the cook should get a reprieve from that chore. Mechanical dishwashers don't work too well out here in the country where we have to maintain our own sewers, and where there's lots of sand in the well water. My mom always wanted one and it was a big day when she finally got it. It worked for about a year, then backed up and flooded the kitchen. After that she used it to store canned goods.

    I don't claim that what goes on in this house is typical of Californians. Or humans, even.

  9. In our house as I was growing up, there was always an addition at the end of your list:



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