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The Rituals of Dinner.

For humans, the act of eating has always been characterized by ritual, no matter how spontaneous or impulsive the effort. In a wide sweeping attempt to chronicle the development of civilized dining, the author manages to argue convincingly that rules of food consumption eventually led to conduct of human behavior.

The Rituals of Dinner encompasses eating rituals from the ancient Greeks to cannibalism, the Eucharist, formal dinners and picnics. From the sublime to the ridiculous, Visser says, there is an inherited format to the proceedings.

"Throughout history, we bring our culture with us," she writes. "With all the possibilities for pleasure and danger that implies." Various cultures accentuate different attitudes toward anticipation of a meal, feasts especially.

"Fasting beforehand," the author notes, may very well be necessary, and exclaiming with pleasure, smacking one's lips might be thought to be both polite and benevolent." Other cultures, she adds, prefer restraint before the food offered is admired, and expressing enjoyment by word or deed is frowned upon."

In some cultures, it is correct to be silent while eating . . . in others, one must continue to talk (we have met not merely to eat, but also to commune with fellow human beings).

The author insists that every human society without exception observes eating rules. From this perspective, it is overwhelmingly evident that manners in deportment, behavior and speech will follow and that conforming to such rules, decreed or implied, creates harmony, orderliness and class distinctions and, in excess, snobbery. Are we witnessing a deterioration of these structures that is inevitably linked with growing chaos in our society?

Table manners, Visser explains, are social agreements emphasizing that no one will intrude upon others' sensitivities. To share food is the ultimate in social behavior because it implies the forging of a family relationship although the event may last only for a short time.

The book is free of prejudice. The world of cannibalism is treated with scientific respect. Although the idea of eating other humans is abhorrent, civilized people do not react with equal horror at the prospect of killing people or eating animals. Both Sigmund Freud and the French philosopher Montaigne observed that if you can classify them as enemies, you can kill them with justice.

Archaeologists have recorded the incidence of cannibalism throughout human history. Less known is the fact that the Aztecs of Mexico, although highly respected for their achievements in government, social organization, and feats of architecture, devoted much of their culinary arts to the eating of human beings. The practice was an institutionalized in Aztec society as our tradition of feasting upon turkey at Thanksgiving and haute cuisine involving roasting, frying, and steeping human flesh in sauces as we prepare animal meat in modern society.

Tourists quite commonly visit marvels as mightly as the Pyramids of Egypt, Margaret Visser observes, but come home really jolted by, and unable to forget, the Egyptian manner of pouring tea into a glass until it slops into the saucer. When eating and drinking we are particularly sensitive and vigilant and react to the slightest deviation from what we have learned to regard as proprieties."

Manners are not always restrictive. They also pressure people into behaving in predictable fashion: when we know what to do and expect, we can interact on occasions, relying upon the rules of politeness to deal with the apprehensions of meeting others, making decisions, conferring, parting and commemorating. Rituals are there, the writer assures us, to make difficult passage easier.

We have been programmed, the book makes clear, to congregate as families did during prehistoric times. The focus of nomadic life, the communal fire, has been replaced by gathering in the kitchen, an event that defined the necessity for communal affection to our present era. (One can wonder how hasty visits to the nearest fast-food restaurants will eventually replace human need for "gathering around the heart.")

Li Chi, the Chinese Book of Rites (compiled in the first century, A.D.) warned that "the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety."

How Rude Are We?

(From The Rituals of Dinner)

Modern manners increasingly force us to be casual . . . Politeness, whether formal or informal, has always involved manipulating social distance. The kind of politeness that we call formality deliberately keeps people apart. Its purpose is partly to prevent prying and to slow down the process of familiarization in order to give each party time to appraise the other.

Modern society has more than enough devices for keeping people apart. We sleep in separate rooms, live and eat in separate quarters, move around within the closed doors of metal vehicles . . . When we meet, therefore, with the express purpose of socializing, we cannot afford to be distant.

"Manners" govern relationships with other people primarily in situations of close personal contact; they do not constitute virtue, but they do set out to imitate virtue's outward appearance. They are an admission of an ideal.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Vegetus Publications
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1991
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