Samui Wining & Dining
Mind Your Manners!

There are millions of dining etiquette rules – here are just a few of them.

P11-(1)“Do not blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.” Erasmus, Dutch humanist and author of the first modern book of manners in 1526.

And to continue with some similarly sound advice, neither should you “pour your coffee into the saucer to cool,” or “make a display of removing insects from your food”. And, please, don’t “use your napkin to blow your nose or mop your brow.” These despairing directions were issued somewhat later than Erasmus produced his treatise on manners, back in the 16th century, and are to be found in J.D. Rudd’s Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture that appeared in 1886. And, no, this was not just one more of the many stuffy Victorian rulebooks on how to behave in polite society. This was an attempt to introduce a far more basic education to table manners in that vigorous and lively new nation we now know as the USA!

But, do you know the correct way to butter and eat your bread? Which way should you tip your soup bowl to get at the last few drops? What’s the accepted etiquette with regards to napkins? And why is port traditionally passed to the left, whereas dishes go the other way, from left to right?

Well, of course, the answers to these questions, and the reasons for them, lie shrouded in the mists of time. You have to bear in mind that for thousands of years, the knife was the main eating utensil. You used the sharp edge to cut up your portions and then the pointed tip to spear the bits into your mouth. But, as society advanced, so eating habits became more refined. And, in 1669, table knives lost their sharp points. The French king, King Louis XIV, banned the use of ‘personal’ knives at the table – too many nobles were getting stabbed! And, so, even today, with our harmless, rounded table knives, the rule is to always keep the blade pointed inwards, towards your plate, and away from the person next to you. To do otherwise indicates bad feelings towards the person on your right!

And another ‘mystique’ also dates back to those swashbuckling times when men carried swords – this time stemming from British naval tradition. The meal always began with a toast to the King. The procedure was that the host would pour a glass for the person on his right, and then pass the decanter to the person sitting to his left who would do the same, and so on, around the table, until all the glasses were filled. This custom, in fact, dates right back to biblical times, when it was usual for one man to drink (usually kneeling, from a stream or well) whilst another guarded him from attack from the rear. And so, in passing the port to the left, the officer on the right has his sword arm free.

Table napkins are another aspect of formal dining that have the power to strike fear into the heart of the uninitiated. But, back in the 18th century, there was no such problem. Because a large ‘napkin’ was fixed to one of the walls of the dining room, available for all to use, as and when they saw fit. It wasn’t too convenient and, like the tablecloth, it didn’t get washed until it became really messy. So it was up to the French to take the lead, and they developed a system of three tablecloths – the top one being the one you used to clean your greasy fingers (and mouth, too!). And from here it didn’t take long for individual napkins to emerge – one for each diner.

And the rules? Easy. Wait until the host uses his or her napkin, and then deploy yours. It’s placed on your lap – never tucked into your shirt, like a bib! Should you leave the table for any reason, place it on your chair, not on the table, as a sign that you’re going to return. It should be used to gently blot your lips, and it’s a sign of good manners that your napkin should remain as clean as possible. Keep your napkin on your lap until your host signals the end of the mean by placing his/her napkin on the table, and follow suit. Fold it in half, or a quarter, and place it on the table to the right of your plate, or in the centre, if your plate has been cleared.

There are a whole host of other, less historically-fabled rules, too. ‘Solids on the left and liquids on the right.’ And so the drinks stay at your right hand, and the bread goes on your left. That way, you’ll never eat your neighbours’ bread by accident! Don’t use your knife to cut or slice your bread. It’s okay to slit it open first, but then break off bite-size pieces as and when you need them. And you should butter each piece as you go – never all of it at once. How terribly vulgar!

Your cutlery is set according to your courses, and the rule here is to work from the outside, inwards. The butter knife will be on your bread plate, to your left, and the dessert knife/spoon/fork appears away from you, on the far side of your dinner plate. And, once any item of cutlery has left the table, it should never return to it again – and this includes the dreaded ‘bridging’ – one end of your knife on the table, with its tip resting on the plate. At the end of the course, place your knife and fork together on your plate, with the fork tines downward and the blade of the knife towards it – and neatly place these on a diagonal, in the ‘20 past 10’ position.

And, of course, there’s more. There’s a whole host of other little formalities that time and space don’t allow me to reveal. In fact, this is an area of such concern, that there are thousands of books and websites on the subject. And, in case you’re wondering, to get the last drops of soup you tip the bowl away from you, but you do the opposite with a liquid dessert. I wonder if Erasmus knew about this!


Rob De Wet


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