There is a myth circulating in present day media that all families who are any good, and any parents who have any control over their kids, will sit down and eat dinner together – whether they like it or not.
And I am not sure I subscribe to that popular guilt trip – just as I don’t actually think children will keel over without a regular bedtime.
First of all, I already don’t like the traditional yelling that happens when a family is called for dinner. Typically someone is late or does not immediately rush to their place at the table because they want to finish their project or whatever, and then the yelling becomes angry sounding.
As soon as a meal starts with angry yelling, I am out of there. I don’t like meals which start with yelling and then continue in some mad rush to get the food down as fast as possible.
I am one of those over sensitive people who is affected by ‘bad’ table manners. I really care if you show your food in your mouth, or belch, or fart, or place both elbows on the table and stuff the food in as fast as possible. The sight and tension of this sort of eating can actually give me a stomach ache.
And the thing with table manners, is that every family has different standards. I was brought up fairly strictly, possibly too strictly, but the damage has been done and I can’t go back.
The rules were something like this: cut up some of your food, then put your knife on the side of the plate and use your fork to eat; use just the one hand to eat, leave your fingers out of it, and leave the other hand on your lap. The other hand does not need to be nailed to your lap but do not rest one or both arms on the table as if you are too tired to hold yourself up.
Lift your food to your face; don’t lower your face to the food. Tip your soup away from your lap in order to get to the bottom of it. Don’t crash the tings of the fork on your teeth, just eat more slowly and place your utensil more carefully. Cut bread, break buns. Take small bites so that you can talk and eat without a huge challenge.
I think that was about it. Excuse yourself when you are done and don’t put your napkin in your plate. When your plate is finished put your fork and knife on the side of the plate. Our mom argued that we should know how to eat properly so that it would become second nature and we would never be nervous if we are invited to a fancy dinner.
She was right about that, and I think the manners are nice and easy to follow. However, I don’t get invited out to fancy dinners all that often and most people I meet eat like ‘farmers’ as my Mom would have said.
But I don’t think table manners are a snob issue. I have met plenty of actual farmers who eat really nicely. I am beginning to think that it is a personality type and that the less uptight people are the ones who eat with the most gusto and indelicacy.
My husband tends to do a whole host of things that I was taught to never do. I don’t know why, some of his family members eat all nice and neat some of them do not.
We have had an argument in the last few years over the practice of sitting down to eat together as a family. He says; see how they all sit down to eat as a family in Leave it to Beaver? We borrowed the CD set from the library and often watch while eating dinner. And I say; notice how they eat with small bites, sitting up straight and barely even chewing or swallowing?
So basically, I have had to get over myself. I remind myself that I don’t really care where the fork and knife sit, or whether someone eats dinner as if there is an urgent deadline. The only thing I still quietly complain about is the conversation started mid large mouthful.
I know that I am a bit uptight and sensitive about eating sounds and sights, and depending on my mood, more intensely or less intensely aware of table manners.
The solution in our family is to leave the dinner hour completely free of stress: one announcement that dinner is ready, come or don’t come that is fine. And we might eat in front of the television and watch Coronation Street, or we might sit at the table, where there will be a wide range of table manners.
For some reason my eldest sister and I got on the topic the other day and it made me think that our childhood dinner hours were not stress free, what with the constant teaching of manners. And I distinctly remember my crazy sister and I fighting over who sat closest to Mom because she had the loudest mastication of the family.
And then my eldest sister remembered how we always had candle light and classical music. And I realized in a flash of knowledge that it was my Dad who was sensitive to eating sounds and that is why we had the music. Ah ha!
We had good dinners and bad dinners. Sometimes it was light hearted, but by the time my memory was really kicking in, I think my parents were on the outs and my Dad was depressed. I remember him sitting by himself after dinner, with the classical music, drinking wine and looking morose.
What is truly important, obviously, is not so much manners or family traditions, but whether the people sitting at the table want to be there. My husband does not have that same sad ritual, and I am grateful for that and able to leave behind some of the rituals of my childhood.
And my husband excuses me too, because sometimes after a long day I just want to be alone or write, and not be at the dinner table with the elbows flying and people choking as they try to talk, laugh and eat food at the same time. Much as I appreciate their gusto and laughter, I will come to dinner when I feel like it, and not when the bell rings, as it did in my childhood.