Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Rituals of Dinner

Title:  The Rituals of Dinner
Author:  Margaret Visser
Publication Information:  Open Road Integrated Media (reprint). 1991 (original). 432 pages.
ISBN:  0802111165 / 978-1504011693

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Table manners are as old as human society itself, the reason being that no human society can exist without them."

Favorite Quote:  "Table manners are social agreements; they are devised precisely because violence could so easily erupt at dinner. Eating is aggressive by nature, and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons; table manners are, most basically, a system of taboos designed to ensure that violence remains out of the question."

Margaret Visser begins this book with cannibalism and ends with a discussion of rudeness. In between, she packs in volumes of information on "the origins, evolution, eccentricities, and meaning of table manners." The book is an anthropological study of how we eat.

The introduction does a great job of introducing the structure of the book:
  • Basic principles of eating that seem to exist the world over
  • How children are taught to eat
  • Process through a dinner party from invitation through execution
  • Process of eating itself including aspects such as hygiene, tableware, and service
  • Etiquette and definition of rudeness during dinner
Interestingly, the one thing about dinner this book does not address is what we eat. This book is all about the how. Also, interestingly, the one thing about eating together this book does not address is the emotional implications. This book remains focused on the how; for example, it address how a child may learn to eat a food but not how as an adult, the food may conjure up vivid childhood memories.

This book is strictly fact driven with each section including example after example from both modern and ancient civilizations of the rituals, customs, and traditions of how we eat. For example, why did cannibalism exist and why is now a rarity? How does what we learn as children about "appropriate" behavior often carry throughout our lives? Did you know that the world invite perhaps originates in two Sanskrit words meaning "towards pleasant" or perhaps originates from the Latin word meaning "unwilling"? (For some dinner parties, both may apply, right?) Did you know that anthropologists have identified 132 main ways of sitting? Did you know that forks became prevalent first in Italy and Spain? Did you know that almost every country in Europe has its own way of placing silverware on a plate to indicate that the diner has finished eating?

The book is quite an extensive compilation. The lengthy references and bibliography at the end point to the depth of research conducted to compile this book. The best and the worst aspect of the book is that it is full of trivia - a lot of trivia. From culture to culture. From tradition to tradition. The individual items about why we behave in a certain manner and why certain rituals exist are fascinating, but put together, it makes for slow reading.

Perhaps, reading the book end to end is the not correct approach. I need time to absorb the information as it is read in small bits. Reading the book in bits also allows better understanding of the themes being developed rather than focusing on example after example and perhaps "missing the forest for the trees."

The breadth and depth of information covered also indicates that this is not the book for a reader with a casual interest in the topic. The author pulls elements from anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology to draw comparisons and conclusions. This academic approach has led to the book being used in college curricula.

Table manner and rituals are a language that convey our culture and our upbringing. This book is a great reference source for anyone looking to study the topic. If you have a general interest in the topic, you may find yourself skimming the book or looking for a different one. Should you choose to read it, you will never sit down to dinner quite the same way again.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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