Supper with the Queen

Bespoke - - ASIDE - WRITER: Lawrence Tucker-gar­diner

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?

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