TA­BLE MAN­NERS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - VISUAL ARTS -

THE great­est les­son of his­tory is that the present is the out­come of events in the past, and there­fore could have been, and could still be, oth­er­wise. More pre­cisely, we can sort those de­ter­min­ing events into three cat­e­gories: the nec­es­sary, the ran­dom and the vol­un­tary, and we can con­sider how the in­ter­ac­tion of th­ese di­verse fac­tors pro­duced the world we live in.

Most peo­ple, how­ever, seem not to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity of dif­fer­ence, as we can see in the in­stinct of con­for­mity that un­der­lies the power of fash­ion in so many ar­eas of life. Peo­ple want to be the same, so they im­i­tate ev­ery­one else around them, con­sume the same ephemeral com­mer­cial en­ter­tain­ment, at­tach value to the same prod­ucts and gad­gets, eat the same junk food.

Eat­ing habits are a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing ques­tion to­day, when we find our­selves on the one hand sur­rounded by restau­rants, books, tele­vi­sion shows and shops at­test­ing to a fascination with fine cui­sine and healthy eat­ing, yet at the same time are over­whelmed by the spread of obe­sity. The di­chotomy is so bla­tant that one has to take both as symp­toms of a common malaise.

The sit­u­a­tion is clearly made pos­si­ble by the grotesque over­sup­ply of cheap and un­healthy food, both in ubiq­ui­tous shops and in su­per­mar­kets, and above all by the univer­sal avail­abil­ity of soft drinks. But there is another, moral side to the prob­lem, and it can­not be en­tirely re­duced to the ig­no­rance, greed and weak­ness of will of con­sumers. Peo­ple have al­ways been greedy and weak; some­thing else is needed to ex­plain the ag­gra­va­tion of th­ese nat­u­ral ten­den­cies.

The miss­ing fac­tor is the loss of a cul­ture of self-con­trol, au­ton­omy and re­spon­si­bil­ity. Th­ese are the most im­por­tant moral qual­i­ties that we try to in­stil in chil­dren as they grow up, yet the con­sumerist cel­e­bra­tion of in­dul­gence, com­bined with mass cul­ture’s ethos of mind­less con­for­mity, have con­spired to make peo­ple in gen­eral as­sume they can­not change their lives.

The dam­age seems worse in the pri­vate than in the pub­lic sphere of our ex­is­tences. For most peo­ple still ac­quire the dis­ci­pline needed to com­plete an ed­u­ca­tion and to func­tion in a job. But in the man­age­ment of their own bod­ies and minds, many seem never to have learned to ex­er­cise willpower, to de­fer or ab­stain from grat­i­fi­ca­tion, to con­ceive that they could live in a dif­fer­ent and bet­ter way.

The his­tory of eat­ing habits is pre­cisely the sub­ject of a fas­ci­nat­ing lit­tle ex­hi­bi­tion hid­den away almost in a cor­ner of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria but well worth a visit. The Art of the Ta­ble starts, ap­pro­pri­ately, with some of the least nu­tri­tion­ally but most so­cially sig­nif­i­cant things we con­sume: tea, cof­fee and choco­late.

To­day, we can hardly imag­ine a day with­out th­ese bev­er­ages, es­pe­cially the first two, yet they en­tered our lives in Europe only in the 17th cen­tury, com­ing for­tu­itously from three quarters of the world: tea from China, cof­fee from Ara­bia and choco­late from Amer­ica.

The first cof­fee shop in London opened in 1652; a half-cen­tury later, there were at least 500 and cof­fee had be­come an in­dis­pens­able part of ur­ban life. There was fi­nally a way to sit to­gether and so­cialise with­out drink­ing al­co­hol: peo­ple were alert rather than drunk in cof­fee shops, so they nat­u­rally be­came places to meet, to ex­change ideas, to do business. As news­pa­pers be­gan to ap­pear, they were read and writ­ten in cafes. The great in­surance company Lloyds be­gan in a cof­fee shop.

Cof­fee had an im­por­tant ef­fect on lit­er­a­ture,

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014 per­haps not yet fully stud­ied, and even beyond fu­elling the pro­duc­tions of gen­er­a­tions of jour­nal­ists. Voltaire, for ex­am­ple, is said to have drunk 40 cups a day, and that per­haps helps ex­plain his enor­mous pro­duc­tiv­ity — his cor­re­spon­dence alone runs to more than 100 vol­umes. In the fol­low­ing cen­tury, Balzac is sup­posed to have drunk 40 cups a day, and the abun­dance of his lit­er­ary style, pil­ing up ad­jec­tives and ep­i­thets, no doubt re­flects the chem­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion of caf­feine.

Tea re­mained a lux­ury for longer. From the early 18th cen­tury it be­came fash­ion­able to take tea with friends in the af­ter­noon, and this evolved into an elab­o­rate meal — still known as high tea. As we learn from the ex­hi­bi­tion, the tea it­self, ini­tially very ex­pen­sive, was kept un­der lock and key and pre­pared by the host­ess in per­son, while ser­vants might at­tend to the cakes and other foods.

The cus­tom was English at first and spread to France as part of the An­glophilia of the En­light­en­ment, although there it re­mained an up­per­class and some­what self-con­scious prac­tice. Even to­day, most French peo­ple as­sume one must be feel­ing un­well or be on a spe­cial diet to or­der tea in­stead of cof­fee.

In Eng­land, mean­while, tea grad­u­ally be- came more af­ford­able and by the early 19th cen­tury was drunk by all classes. This made a health­ier al­ter­na­tive to the beer that pre­vi­ously was con­sumed through­out the day, even at break­fast. Cheap tea no doubt con­trib­uted to the more sober tone of the Vic­to­rian house­hold: at last one could rea­son­ably ex­pect one’s ser­vants not to be tipsy all day.

It’s odd to think wa­ter could not be drunk in most mod­ern ci­ties un­til rel­a­tively re­cently. We still don’t drink tap wa­ter in Third World coun­tries, but it was the same even in London or Paris, where it was sim­ply too pol­luted to be safe — un­less pro­cessed into beer or boiled for tea or cof­fee. I re­mem­ber years ago of­fer­ing to pour wa­ter for an el­derly gourmet in Paris who re­fused in dis­gust — “Don’t you know that fish piss in it?” he asked. Of course the re­al­ity of what once went into ur­ban wa­ter sup­plies was much worse than that.

The more one con­sid­ers the his­tory of al­co­hol con­sump­tion in the past few cen­turies, the more its so­cial and cul­tural ram­i­fi­ca­tions be­come ap­par­ent. Al­co­hol was noth­ing like as dan­ger­ous in an­tiq­uity: the Greeks not only drank wa­ter — there is even an enig­matic say­ing by the great poet Pin­dar, “wa­ter is bet­ter” — but al­ways mixed their wine with wa­ter, usu­ally with a lot more wa­ter than wine. And they had no spir­its, which are far more harm­ful than brewed al­co­holic bev­er­ages.

It would be in­ter­est­ing to know more about the Re­nais­sance and baroque pe­ri­ods. One could as­sume that in many cases, the lack of safe drink­ing wa­ter drove the pop­u­la­tion to drink wine and beer, but there were ex­cep­tions such as Rome. One of the an­cient aque­ducts, the Ac­qua Vergine, was re­opened in the mid­dle of the 15th cen­tury, set­ting the scene for the re­vival of the city in the High Re­nais­sance, and a sec­ond, the Ac­qua Felice, was re­stored in the late 16th, as Rome as­serted it­self once again as cap­i­tal of the baroque pe­riod. Even to­day, trav­ellers can re­fill their bot­tles, all over the city, with crys­tal-clear spring wa­ter.

North­ern­ers, in con­trast, es­pe­cially the Dutch and Ger­mans, had the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing drunks as early as the 16th cen­tury. Per­haps in the case of the Dutch this was owing to the greater use of spir­its, in par­tic­u­lar gin or jen­ever, which was in­vented about this time. But even with­out spir­its, be­ing more or less per­ma­nently drunk has a num­ber of un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences for health, not least chronic de­hy­dra­tion. And it is not hard to see that adding cof­fee to this regime would only ag­gra­vate the risk — much like the prob­lems of drinks such as Coca-Cola, filled with sugar and salt as well as caf­feine.

Jen­ever came to Eng­land in the late 17th cen­tury, and by the early decades of the 18th, with the dereg­u­lated man­u­fac­ture of cheap gin, there was a cri­sis of al­co­holism among the poor. Ev­ery­one drank a lot in 18th-cen­tury Eng­land — the rich dis­patched enor­mous quan­ti­ties of French cham­pagne, ta­ble wine and brandy as well as for­ti­fied wines from Spain, Por­tu­gal and Si­cily — but even by th­ese stan­dards the sui­ci­dal level of non-stop and ex­treme ine­bri­a­tion among London’s poor was shock­ing, and leg­is­la­tion was passed to re-reg­u­late the in­dus­try.

Com­pared with a pop­u­la­tion drunk to the point of un­con­scious­ness and con­se­quently un­em­ploy­able, mal­nour­ished, de­hy­drated, breed­ing even more mal­nour­ished and un­healthy off­spring, sim­ply be­ing mildly tipsy all day from drink­ing beer seemed a thor­oughly ac­cept­able and work­able al­ter­na­tive. That is the point made in Wil­liam Hog­a­rth’s con­trast of the happy, healthy and good-na­tured in­hab­i­tants of Beer Street and the ca­dav­er­ous and dys­func­tional pop­u­lace of Gin Lane (1751).

Mean­while one more bev­er­age makes an in­ter­est­ing ap­pear­ance — to­gether with the ce­ramic and glass im­ple­ments for its con­sump­tion in its var­i­ous guises. Milk, of course, be­came a part­ner of tea, cof­fee and choco­late, but it was also en­joyed on its own and pre­pared in var­i­ous ways as a dessert. Most in­ter­est­ing, and least fa­mil­iar, is the fash­ion for toy dairies in the later 18th cen­tury.

Ev­ery­one has prob­a­bly heard of MarieAn­toinette’s dairy at the Petit Tri­anon near Ver­sailles, where she and her ladies-in-wait­ing could play at be­ing milk­maids, but this was ap­par­ently only the most prom­i­nent ex­am­ple of a broader phe­nom­e­non. Dairies were set up on the edges of aris­to­cratic es­tates, and groups of women would con­clude their prom­e­nade in the park with a visit, dur­ing which they would con­sume milk in var­i­ous guises, liq­uid or solid.

The fact it was women who en­gaged in the en­joy­ment of milk in this im­me­di­ate and min­i­mally pro­cessed form is sig­nif­i­cant. Milk is al­ready quintessen­tially a fem­i­nine sub­stance, and serv­ing it set or cooked into var­i­ous kinds of sweet pud­dings is merely to em­pha­sise its “fem­i­nine”, baby-food qual­i­ties, as con­trasted with the im­plic­itly more “mas­cu­line” form of cheese, which needs to be cul­tured, salted and aged, and whose strong, pun­gent character is the op­po­site of nurs­ery food.

But there is still more to this line of in­quiry. The toy dairies, for all their rather twee Meissen

A sil­ver Sa­muel Tay­lor tea caddy set (1749-50)

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