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A Quick History of Dining Practices

Food and culture are deeply intertwined. And, while most people are generally aware of the fact that contemporary western niceties are related to Victorian England, far fewer are familiar with how international relations and cross-cultural contact helped shape today’s dining practices across the centuries. So, let’s take a closer look.

Dining Practices: The Table

 "After dinner" (1901) by Bernard Hall
"After dinner" (1901) by Bernard Hall

Modern dinnerware involves serving dishes, utensils, and glassware. There are usually a few different types of serving dishes on the table, each with their own intended purpose. And while these can come in different forms and sizes, it’s common practice to pull out the finest china for particularly important or distinguished guests. The term is indicative of its origins. European and Islamic traders imported porcelain West from the Far East.

Though “primitive porcelain” existed for millennia, fine china – as we know it today – didn’t appear until the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), becoming a staple of fine dining over time. Even as the West began to make its own serving dishes, the products never attained the same level of international prestige. By the 19th century, it became fashionable to collect fine china, a trend that was theoretically spurred by the Dutch-English nobleman Patrick Palmer-Thomas.

The use of knives and spoons, however, has been a staple of eating for so long that it’s hard to definitively date when and where they originated. But forks have an interesting history. According to etiquette expert Susie Wilson: “Though there is evidence that forks were used throughout early history and during [the] Roman Empire, [the] Dark Ages in Europe brought many changes, including [for the most part] the abandonment of forks and spoons for dining.”

They reemerged in France by way of Catherine de Medici. In 1533, she journeyed across Europe to marry Henry II, the future King of France. During their marriage, Henry side-lined Catherine in favor of his mistress, limiting her political influence and involvement in statecraft. However, following Henry’s death, Catherine assumed power as Queen-regent. Her reign is remembered for the series of complex civil and religious conflicts that erupted across France.

She adopted hard-line practices to enforce order among the rebelling public, while simultaneously enacting an extensive policy of artistic patronage to cultivate the crown’s cultural legitimacy. Catherine supplied funding for painting, fabrics, tapestries, sculptures, pottery, and of course, dinnerware. And while some historians contest the notion of Catherine is the reason Italian habits are prevalent in French culture, her support for a variety of arts, including the culinary, cemented her legacy.

Luncheon Still Life" (1860) by John F. Francis
Luncheon Still Life" (1860) by John F. Francis

Now, glassware is composed of two glasses: one for wine and one for water. Victorian tradition has it that the wine should be placed above the knife, on the right of the table ensemble, while the water glass should be placed on the left. However, “until well into the 19th century, no glassware was placed directly on the table. It was lined up on a side table and offered by servants, already filled.”

Stemmed glassware in particular became a status symbol, indicative of the owner’s refinement. And so did wine. Any sommelier can tell you that a litany of factors play a role in shaping a wine’s value: from the year it was fermented to its country of origin to its intended purpose. Since wine tends to be consistently present at the dinner table, a set of customs were established around it; these include keeping specific wines at certain temperatures, de-corking practices, and serving wine in wineglasses specially crafted for this purpose.

Linen cloth recovered from Qumran Cave near the Dead Sea
Linen cloth recovered from Qumran Cave near the Dead Sea

Finally, we have the tablecloths, the use of which is traced back to the Roman Empire. They were usually used by the upper class to display wealth and status. “During the first century after the birth of Christ, the word mentelia appeared as the designation of covering for the table, and a new word, mappa, was adopted for the napkin.” At the time, both were made from linen, which was primarily imported from places like Damascus and Alexandria. Though, coarse homespun linen was still widely used in Italy.

When the Roman Empire fell, tablecloths made from linen went out of fashion and were replaced by heavily embroidered and costly blankets. It wasn’t until the 10th century that the revived linen industry boomed in Flanders and renewed the popularity of tablecloths. But it took until the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1533 – 1603) for the use of individual napkins to gain popularity.

Dining Practices: Tipping

$2 Silver Certificate, Series of 1896
$2 Silver Certificate, Series of 1896

The ritual of eating is shaped by a lot more than just by what’s on the table. Though the concept of rewarding good service has been around for centuries, tipping was first considered to be an absurd practice in the United States when wealthy Americans traveling abroad brought it over from Europe.

There are conflicting narratives about why and when the practice arose in America. Some linked it to racial origins, insinuating that the habit was a way of paying money to newly freed slaves. Others believed that it highlighted class differences in a country that wanted to establish a society free of European elitism.

Even today, tipping is still a controversial issue. Danny Mayer, owner of the Shake Shack franchise, is one of its most vocal critics. “In October 2015 the New York restaurateur abolished tipping at his restaurants and raised menu prices, saying that doing so would allow him to pay his kitchen workers better.” Other restaurateurs followed suit. “To offset the cost of higher wages, many restaurants have raised menu prices. Others have cut costs by shrinking their staff or buying cheaper ingredients.” As a result, many have gone back to tipping.

Dining Practices: Final Thoughts

Fact is dining practices have greatly evolved thanks to time, cultural diffusion, social stratification, and global migration. As people create new ways of relating to one another, we are going to continue to influence dining norms, finding new ways to share meals and shape the art of dining.

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