Elbows off the table, don’t speak with your mouth full, you’re not a coal miner so don’t shovel your food …
Just a few of the orders barked at me by my parents and teachers as I ran the mealtime gauntlet and sat through the diatribe of dining education that was an integral part of my childhood. But what has happened to all of that now? As I sit dishing out instructions to my sons on how to hold a knife and fork correctly, the napkin on the lap and sipping soup side-on from a soup not dessert spoon (yes, there is a differently shaped spoon for this and no, you shouldn’t turn the spoon so it is head-on or place the entire utensil in your mouth), as with the days of needing to be told ‘start from the outside and work your way in’ when faced with a battalion of cutlery at your nanna’s house, is slowly but surely being demobbed.
“What does it matter whether you squash or shovel your peas and who uses a knife these days anyway?” Asserts my eldest son who wipes up the residue of his oil and balsamic vinegar soaked salad with a hunk of bread then gulps a full glass of water down without coming up for air, and I think to myself ‘what hope?’
But perhaps he is right; whilst sitting in a fairly swanky restaurant the other day enjoying a not inexpensive meal with clients, not only was the senior manager who oversaw dozens of multi-million pound deals every day, making a point by waving his cutlery around like an enthusiastic conductor, but it was impossible to avoid the scene of carnage that was taking place between his gnashing jaws as he continued to make his point loudly without first despatching the contents of his mouth south.
However, perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies as my other son who suffered the subsequent sibling syndrome, so not only received slightly less attention than my first born but was also less likely to have his finger food foraging disciplined with the toddler sized blunt knife and fork set his older brother eventually mastered. Then there was the fact that son number 1 spent his formative years in a highly regarded private school where lunch was a proper sit-down affair with meat and two veg, whereas son number 2 had to make do with a packed lunch at a slightly less regarded school, our school fees pot having been eroded with the cost of living by then.
A “will you sit up straight and put your hand in your lap if you’re not using it” is met with a “but I’m shorter than the rest of you so it’s more difficult to reach the table” which was indeed true, perhaps four years ago, but with his recent growth spurt, despite the lack of cooked school dinners, that excuse doesn’t hold water.
Undaunted I persevere with admonishing anyone for stretching over another to reach the bread or butter and enlist the help of my own nanna’s story about the person who passed a sharp knife without offering the recipient a foot-hold on the handle; he lost all his fingers you know.
Then there is the discretion needed to remove an offending piece of something from your mouth, whether it’s a fishbone or a piece of gristle; no you don’t just spit it out onto your plate so it rejoins its less masticated comrades for everyone to see and neither do you use your serviette (the days of the cotton napkin rolled up and pushed neatly through the napkin ring long gone) to rid you of the inedible offender and put the saliva saturated serviette on the table for all to enjoy the veiled unwanted contents that start to soak through the thin tissue.
I will concede the latter is quite a difficult one to master and I often think avoidance better than remedy is best but further down the scale we have eating off your knife (I have another story from my nanna about the man who lost his tongue), taking food off someone else’s plate, starting before everyone has been served and getting up from the table before everyone else has finished.
“No one bothers with all that nowadays” I’m reliably informed and “I don’t want pudding so can I leave the table?” not because I don’t want pudding but because I’m right in the middle of a game that involves explosions, lots of shouting and people appearing out of nowhere that make me jump … and did I mention the shouting?
Perhaps my demands to observe the table manners I was taught are indeed out of kilter with today’s society but for all the fussy pretence and old school tradition of which I am accused, I will continue to pursue straight backs, knives and forks correctly placed when the meal is finished and I will always have a set of soup spoons in my drawer.