A few weeks ago, as part of the Eat Cambridge food festival, I was invited to “Dine Like Downton”. We are so enthralled, it seems, by the elegant shenanigans on the TV show that we want to learn more about British dining etiquette.
We dressed formally, adopted our best manners and drew ourselves up to white linen and an armoury of eating weapons. Present to guide us was William Hanson, “the UK’s leading etiquette and Royal protocol expert”, a description which barely touches the surface of his polished excellence. Hanson is Special Forces in the world of politeness and has a staggering ability to make one feel the centre of attention and utterly inadequate at the same time.
During a delightful evening we learnt how to eat toast (break off bite-size pieces and butter before placing in the mouth), how to use a clergyman (officially genderless, he can fill any place in your boy-girl-boy-girl seating plan) and how to leave a room to pee (don’t).
Perhaps the biggest revelation about these arcane dining rules is that they are not designed to exclude. The idea of a shared code of behaviour is to make everyone comfortable and, counter-intuitively, social rank less obvious.
With that idea of social ease in mind I felt it was time to update a few rules for modern dining …
It was long considered that politics, sex or religion were improper topics of conversation at dinner; today, things have changed.
It would, of course, be impossible to discuss what one has seen on television without revealing oneself as a knuckle-dragger, but we should also avoid discussion of house prices, schools or children. At any reasonably socially mixed table there will be at least one couple who loathe either state or private education, and anyone without children on which to comment is probably in their third round of IVF or has a partner with “commitment issues”. Nobody, of course, has the faintest idea what’s really happening to the property market, so bringing that up at dinner is increasingly like opening a conversation on alien abduction or the existence of tiny faerie folk.
News nowadays consists of little but sex, religion or politics and so I suggest that these become the only acceptable topics and indeed compulsory.
Grace at the beginning of a meal is usually considered to be at the discretion of the host. Those without religious conviction should remain silent during grace or may bow their heads in contemplation. Fortunately for the godless, a new secular grace has taken over, in which diners pause for a few moments while the food bloggers at the table record their dinner for posterity with phones and cameras.
The blogless are forbidden to tut. They can, if they wish, pass comment on the “plating” or other design elements of the dish, or bow their heads in silent exasperation.
Traditional etiquette gives us a bewildering number of rules around serving. At a formal medieval banquet each aristocrat would have had his own manservant to serve him. Silver service, still practised at rubber-chicken events, involves an impoverished student attempting to crochet the food over your shoulder and on to the plate with a spoon and fork. In the far more practical “butler” service, the staff lean over the left shoulder with the dish and one helps oneself. Finally we have the nightmare of “middle-class family” service, where each diner offers to “help” others to everything on the table. There is apparently a way of doing this where the food doesn’t get cold while you’re still trying to press a parsnip on Aunt Julia, but it involves an understanding of chaos and game theories beyond the average diner.
Now that we’re all “foodies”, an entirely new protocol has arisen. Immediately after the first bite, it is expected that the diner should declare the food “utterly to die for” then offer forkfuls to anyone who’s ordered differently. This process, though convivial, can take four times longer than passing the peas.
Using the correct cutlery
In an Edwardian country house, the menu seldom strayed beyond simple soups, kindly treated fish and unchallenging meats, but modern gatherings are increasingly influenced by the latest trends in ethnic cooking. Oh, for the days when all one had to know was which was the soup spoon and how to scoop delicately away from one’s Marcellised shirt front or bejewelled embonpoint.
Today’s diner needs to know how to slurp noodles, twizzle spaghetti, raise their rice bowl to their mouth and shovel with sticks. Where dinner used to require a battery of silverware it now demands an extensive knowledge of culinary anthropology, cultural sensitivity and a complete absence of dignity.
I have yet to attend a dinner party on an East African theme but I am fully prepared. When the table is spread with a thin sheet of injera bread and the food placed on top, I will no longer, as taught, refrain from dabbing my mouth with the tablecloth and will instead rip pieces off and eat it.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer