Supper with the Queen
Eating with people from different cultures can be a minefield of dining customs and possible faux pas made all the worse by the fact that so many people haven’t perfected their table manners at home.
like him, did it constantly. Mental note: if the opportunity ever presents itself, do not marry Akira Kurosawa’s ex-wife, she takes passive aggressive behaviour to a whole new level. Yet it’s not all death and doom when it comes to food etiquette, sometimes it is simply gross. Like the first time an Afghani, an Indian, or even a Saudi for that matter, explains why eating with your hands adds to the experience, but only if it’s the right hand. For someone raised with a socialisation of cutlery culture, it took me some time to get my head around the fact that, to my Middle Eastern and South Asian colleagues, the forkholding hand meant toilet paper. You see, I was brought up in a proper English household, where you’re drilled into never putting your elbows on the table, never chewing with your mouth open and only ever starting with the cutlery furthest from the plate before working your way inwards. Then, when you finish your meal, you must place your knife and folk together, with the fork’s prongs facing upwards. On the rare occasion that I asked why we were a little more ‘strict’ at meals than other families I was sternly told, “So you know how to act when the Queen comes to supper”. Interestingly enough, she never did come and to be honest, I never found a scrap of evidence that my family had a standing invitation with her. I’ve got to give it to mum, she’s definitely an optimist. I’m thankful for that upbringing though. Etiquette, like manners, really does maketh the man and I’ve been raised to absorb its nuances with a level of politeness that approaches absurdity. Just think about the commandment to place one’s peas on the back of one’s fork. Have you seen a fork?! Every other part of it, whether the pointy bits, the curved bit, even the damn flat handle, is better suited to dealing with those pesky little escape artists but no, we are clearly instructed to use the smooth convex surface. (Tip: never underestimate how well mashed potato can stick those buggers to the metal.) That being said, I would have appreciated a bit more instruction on how normal people eat as I travelled the world. Sure in Asia and Europe, with their refined, almost ritualistic, approach to food, the experience of dining was a pleasure. I still relish in tapping my fingers when I receive Chinese tea, to the shock - and admiration - of my hosts. But my greatest culture shock was in the US of A. Perhaps it is their colonial rebel history, or perhaps it is their abundance of everything, or more likely, they’re evil table monsters that need to be exorcised from existence. And don’t get me started on their mangled dining language - entrée has always been and will always be a starter, not the main bloody course. Or the fact that they’re vaguely terrified of raw food, or anything that’s not clearly identifiable. But their greatest food crime, by far, is the way that they cut up their food, with the knife, in the wrong hand, only to place it down and proceed to scoop, nay shovel, the assorted baby mash with a fork into their mouth. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I liken this activity to the genocide of all that is good and delicate in the act of dining. I may have mellowed in my old age, and learnt to appreciate and adopt many a custom (with the obvious exception of that American butchery of a meal). I rather pride myself on understanding that food is really a cultural construct.the Cantonese, for instance, are extremely fussy about only eating ‘things that have their back to the sky’ – i.e. pretty much every animal that exists. I once enjoyed a sour-faced Brit girl complaining about people eating dogs, until the very handsome Swiss gentleman sitting next to her at the bar, who she had been trying to impress, casually mentioned that it wasn’t uncommon in some of his country’s eastern cantons. Still, I am occasionally flummoxed by the rationales some people use to explain a delicacy. At a Scandinavian barbecue, a Norwegian guest proudly handed me a grilled piece of whale. “Is it ok to eat whale?” I asked. “They’re the rats of the sea” he replied. Does that really make it any better?