The sight of dogs frantically inhaling their food is strangely hypnotic. Where more than one is present growling, yapping and biting occur before the pack settle on a gulping hierarchy.

We humans, notwithstanding varying concerns over manners and hygiene, are not so far removed from our canine accomplices. Indeed, our history can be viewed as a seemingly endless and often bloody competition for resources, of which food is the original and most basic. So the agricultural Hutu set upon the pastoral Tutsi when the exponential rise in Rwanda’s population made the co-existence of their systems of land-usage incompatible. Although generally removed from such extreme forms of conflict, the communal meal, as we know, is not without its tensions.

Even beyond the domestic sphere, we display unusual intimacy in our dining. Martin Jones, in Feast: Why Humans Share Food (2007), emphasises the unusual nature of our consumption by comparison with other animals:

Direct eye-contact is more typically hostile as is the opening of mouths, and the exposure of teeth. Combine these with the placing of food, midway between a group of individuals other than parent and child, and we have a clear recipe for conflict and violence.

In view of this potentially explosive arrangement it has, therefore, been necessary for us to regulate our behaviour at mealtime.

Picture a shared meal, say in a Chinese restaurant, and that slight strain of resentment caused when someone takes more than their fair share. Although you will be more than replete at the end of that meal, an evolutionary tic causes us to resent unrestrained consumption. Any group will usually find a way of regulating excess, often through mockery.

The Emergence of Agriculture

Even though hunter-gatherers had their top-dogs and alpha males, the survival of the group depended on sharing. Tribes that have persisted with pre-agricultural modes of production into the present provide an insight into earlier practices. Lorna Marshal in her anthropological study (1976) of the !Kung shows how meat was distributed between the hunters:

The fear of hunger is mitigated; the person one shares with will share in turn when he gets meat and people are sustained by a web of mutual obligation. If there is hunger, it is commonly shared. There are no distinct haves and have nots. One is not alone … [italics added].

The advent of agriculture based on the cultivation of corn staples in the Middle East a mere ten thousand years ago created large surpluses of food. As this seismic innovation spread to most corners of the globe, it facilitated population growth and the emergence of more fixed social hierarchies. Within this new setting, dining presented an opportunity to assert privilege but also generated a range of sometimes puzzling conventions.

Chinese Patterns

The Chinese have rules attached to communal dining that stretch back to ancient times. The Book of Etiquette, written about 4,000 years ago, contains a variety of conventions to ensure the smooth passage of meals, including strictures against eating audibly, bolting down your food, adding condiments to soup in the common bowl and picking your teeth.

Furthermore, the Chinese considered knives to be weapons and ordained that they should be kept away from the table. Thus, meat is still cut into small pieces in their dishes. Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (1994 edition, orig. 1939) explains this absence of a requirement for knives as stemming from the fact that the upper class were not a warrior class ‘but a class pacified to a particularly high degree, a society of scholarly officials’. Incidentally, care should also be taken with chopsticks: leaving them standing up at the end of a meal is considered the height of rudeness as they will then resemble the incense sticks used at funerals.

In Food Culture in China (2004), Jacqueline Newman outlines the strict hierarchies that still operate at communal mealtimes, which are never a ‘grab what you want affair’. Diners will ‘rush to give someone else special items from the service dishes before helping themselves’. Taking a modest portion is de rigueur, while ‘stretching or standing to get something for oneself is absolutely forbidden’, though slurping is acceptable. Most importantly: ‘No one eats a morsel of food until an honoured guest and the eldest or elders have something to eat’. Transgressors are labelled, a touch xenophobically, as ‘foreign devils’. With such a large and heterogeneous country it is perhaps mistaken to generalise, but it appears that the traditional meal or banquet in China is an occasion for a variety of social groups to congregate, revealing a society where classes intermingle.

Feast and Famine

In the West we have resolved the challenge of communal eating rather differently and patterns of consumption reflect a more individualistic society. It is very rare for a communal bowl to sit on the table at any meal, and only in cases of close intimacy such as exist between families or lovers will there be a genuinely free exchange between plates, though, when eating out, the shared starter, derived from Mediterranean cuisine with its Oriental proximity, is increasingly apparent.

Furthermore, until very recently at least, the bourgeois notion of ‘good taste’ associated refinement with restaurant-dining; the excess of the medieval banquet, whose gargantuan quantities removed any requirement for restraint, has long been dispensed with. The astonishing scale of one such occasion, celebrating the marriage of Ercole d’Este (d. 1505), heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, and Renée, daughter of Louis XII of France, depicted by John Dickie in Delizia – The Epic History of Italian Food (2007) is instructive:

A rough calculation suggests that if the 104 guests ate an equal share of the courses … they would each have consumed eighteen large portions of eleven different fish; three whole birds the size of capons or pheasants; another five smaller birds, such as doves; three portions of meat … [ad nauseam]

A contemporary comparison can be drawn with the all-you-can-eat buffet which, in my limited experience, tends to degenerate into a gluttonous sport where diners seek to out-do one another in their consumption. Any society attempting to distribute food more widely could not hope for such unbridled excess to be the norm. Further, the pre-modern awareness of the potentially mortal sin of gluttony, closely associated with the excess of a decadent ancien régime, continued to influence the bourgeois that emerged triumphant in the French Revolution. So, for example, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, writing in the aftermath of the eighteenth century Agricultural Revolution, when crop rotation and selective breeding increased yields markedly, preached a gospel of gastronomy as opposed to excess, arguing ‘nowadays everyone understands the difference between gourmandism and gluttony’.

Obviously, the triumph of ‘correct’ bourgeois manners was not an overnight phenomenon, and alongside the debauchery of the medieval banquet we can detect the emergence of a precursor to the concept of hygiene. Essentially an evolving notion of what constituted civilised behaviour (a topic explored to masterful effect by Elias in The Civilising Process), it had no scientific basis at that time. The advice of the medieval German poet Tannhauser (died c. 1270) echoes the older Chinese text: ‘Some people bite a slice and dunk it in the dish in a coarse way, refined people reject such bad manners’; and ‘[a] number of people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish – this is a serious offence’. However, Tannhauser is less tolerant than the Chinese in his attitude towards slurping: ‘If a man snorts like a seal when he eats, as some people do, and smacks his chops like a Bavarian yokel, he has given up all good breeding’!

It should be emphasised that involvement in this medieval banquet, with its meats and other protein-rich dishes, was, except on once or twice-yearly religious feasts, largely the preserve of an aristocracy that formed a tiny minority of the population. Peasants, the overwhelming majority, had to content themselves with a staple corn generally consumed in a soup at a time when hunger, and even starvation, was all too common; famine remained a haunting spectre for most Europeans until the nineteenth century at the earliest. Unfortunately, as to how their meals were regulated there is scant evidence, though in the generally straitened circumstances we can surmise that it was far from a free-for-all, and portions were probably distributed so that bread-winners were given larger helpings, a practice that continued in working class communities in the Industrial era. It is also unclear quite how feeding-time was structured as the dining table only becomes commonplace in the eighteenth century (and is now on the decline in many countries). Nevertheless, we know that in many peasant societies, influenced no doubt by Christian ideas of neighbourliness, there endured a tradition of hospitality. So, under pre-Norman Irish Brehon law a householder was obliged to provide food and drink to a visitor or passer-by (see Kelly, Fergus Early Irish Farming, 2000).

‘Some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’

The Agricultural Revolution generated the population growth that breathed life into Europe’s cities and facilitated the Industrial Revolution. The entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, much greater in number than the feudal aristocracy, were unable to afford and were perhaps horrified by the excess of the banquet, but sought a dining experience beyond peasant fare for reasons of display and nutrition. The style of collective dining that emerged in France in the eighteenth century was the simple table d’hôte where a traiteur would present a large pot to the assembled diners who arrived at the appointed hour each day. This presented difficulties as agreed conventions were lacking on how diners would participate. The agronomist Arthur Young, travelling around France at the end of the eighteenth century, bemoaned the rudeness of greedy table companions in hostelries throughout that country, saying that ‘the ducks were swept clean so quickly that I moved from the table without half a dinner’. The ascendant bourgeoisie were looking for something more recherché.

Rather than formulate a set of conventions to regulate the behaviour of inferiors, such as that which emerged in China, this newly affluent class found the experience they sought by adapting a pre-existing phenomenon. Originally, the ‘restaurant’ was where medicinal broths were consumed, its name deriving from the French verb ‘to restore’ or ‘to recuperate’. In her history, The Invention of the Restaurant (2000), Rebecca Sprang tells us how the restaurants of eighteenth century Paris differentiated themselves from other eateries by offering sustenance at any time of day, allowing for the individualisation of portions, now seen as the norm. Eventually restaurants began to offer more solid fare, thereby encroaching on the traiteurs.

The strict laws that regulated the division of business between the different food guilds in eighteenth century France led to friction, which culminated in a landmark court case in which the restaurateurs carried the day. This allowed the restaurant style of eating, ‘characterised not by commonwealth but by compartmentalisation’, to emerge as the dominant form of ‘eating out’ in the Western world; today, European restaurants invariably ‘plate’ each dish before presentation to the customer. The élitist quality of the restaurant experience was part of its appeal. Indeed, according to Sprang, the ‘restaurant fantasy implicitly required the presence of somebody outside: some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’.

Eating Alone

Both West and East reveal strictly-regulated and hierarchical modes of consumption which tend to keep in check the potential for humans to descend to the level of ‘growling, yapping and biting’. In Europe, the medieval feast endeavoured to circumvent any need for restraint by offering stupendous portions, but this was only open to a select few. The Chinese, on the other hand, whose élite were less likely to be warriors than mandarin-bureaucrats, long sought to counter animalistic tendencies by developing rules that prevented meals from descending into ‘grab what you want’ affairs, and gave precedence to the older and more affluent participants. Oriental conventions are indicative of a society where classes are less insulated from one another than the West: a meal might comprise a diverse gathering sitting side by side and eating from the same dish, albeit with those of higher rank being ‘honoured’ with the choicest cut. In the West, on the other hand, each plate is for the individual and is priced accordingly.

The creeping modern innovation of eating alone, perhaps in front of the television or laptop, dispenses with any notion of communally ‘breaking bread’ and thereby avoids a requirement for convention. This is surely to be decried more than any other style. To an extent it is the legacy of the astonishing, though somewhat troubling, agricultural advances in the Green Revolution of the twentieth century. This brought unprecedented plenty at the expense of quality, encouraging an unrefined gluttony far removed from the gastronomic ideals of Brillat-Savarin. The anthropologist Jack Goody, in his Cooking, Cuisine and Class (1982), is particularly scathing of contemporary habits which often amount to nothing more than a TVdinner grabbed from the fridge and involve no apparent social engagement. This solitary form of consumption, he says, reverses the customary habit of ‘public input and private output’, making eating alone ‘the equivalent of shitting publicly’.

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