HOW TO AVOID A CARVE UP!
William Sitwell delves into an etiquette guide from the 18th century and finds plenty of useful advice, but nothing to help him teach his three-year-old the art of behaving at the table
PONDERING on yet another meal-time coloured by the appalling and restless behaviour of our three-year-old, I pulled a thin, ancient-looking tome from the shelves in my study. ‘The Honours of the Table, or, Rules for Behaviour During Meals’ had found me as if by divine instruction. Although, I quickly gathered, two-year-olds were not the focus of the author: one Dr Trusler who, I discovered, was a priest who lived between 1735 and 1820 and who made a name for himself publishing guides to etiquette.
This book’s first edition was in 1788, this copy, the fifth edition, now in my hands having been given to my grandfather, I learnt from an inscription, as a Christmas present in 1945.
There have been some very entertaining guides to behaviour at the table over the centuries, my particular favourite being the musings of Dr William Kitchener who wrote The Cook’s Oracle in 1817. Having admonished previous recipe writers for being plagiarisers, purveyors of error and whose recipes, he wrote, were of no more use ‘than reading Robinson Crusoe would enable a sailor to steer safely from England to India’ he laid down some rules.
Among them were his harsh words for late comers who ‘paralyse’ the entertainment. Such a person was, he wrote, ‘a blundering, ill-bred booby’. ‘Come at seven, go at eleven,’ was his firm instruction. And what better way to ensure one’s guests didn’t linger longer than necessary than by publishing clear guidance.
Dr Tusler, writing at the end of that same century, mixes etiquette advice with practical food shopping tips as well as what he felt was crucial: the art of carving.
And what draws me to the book is the relevance of his advice. What envelopes one into history is the chance to picture oneself in the period, or specifically at Dr T’s table. And a little, light flutter of the imagination and I’m there, in his dining room at his house in Red Lion Street in Clerkenwell, heavy curtains drawn, a dark wooden table, candelabra holding tall candles and a few souls sitting, eating and conversing, robust and warm in some heavy frock coat and, perhaps, some long frilly Laurence-Llewelyn-Bowen-like frilly shirt cuffs. And all of us minding our behaviour, knowing that we were in the midst of the great etiquette expert.
‘It is ungenteel,’ writes Dr T, ‘to eye your friend whilst he is filling his glass.’ Quite right too, I concur. Who wants prudish tyrants tutting at our quite necessary thirsts for wine? And, he adds, ‘never say or boast what it cost you.’ We all know of those who can’t help themselves in revealing their staggering generosity, to point out quite how much the vintage set them back.
There are other no-nos which he lists: ‘to scratch any part of your body, to spit, pick or blow your nose, to eat greedily, to lean your elbows on the table, to pick your teeth before the dishes are removed.’ Presumably once the plates were cleared we could get our tooth-picks, sterling silver little ones perhaps, and have a good old dig.
Tusler also references his thoughts on toasting, giving the idea that this was, for some time, a popular thing to do at the table. Running out of conversation, perhaps, or simply exuberant and well-oiled I can almost hear the guffawing berks, redolent of some Blackadder character, constantly standing and drinking some bombastic toast.
‘Drinking of healths is now growing out of fashion. Abstain from this silly custom,’ is his diktat. ‘And is very unpolite in good company. What can be more rude or ridiculous, than to interrupt persons at their meals, with unnecessary compliments.’
Neither, he notes, should one: ‘[smell meat] whilst on your fork before you put it in your mouth. I have seen an ill-bred fellow do this, and have been so angry, that I could have kicked him from the table.’
He also advises people not to be late, writing: ‘be there a quarter of an hour before the appointed time’. Which does seem to conflict with today’s mores: for what is more annoying than people turning up early for a dinner party; the front door bell goes and suddenly you’re hopping out from the bath and cursing…
But Dr Tusler is practical too, particularly when it comes to carving. ‘We are always in pain for a man, who, instead of cutting up a fowl genteelly, hacking a long time across the bone, greasing himself, and bespattering the whole company.’
And so he devotes several pages to concise instructions and illustrations as to how to carve leg, shoulder and saddle of mutton, leg of pork, haunch of venison, sirloin of beef, hare, rabbit, goose, partridge, fowl, turkey, pigeon, cod’s head, salmon and mackerel.
‘In serving your guest with a slice of head,’ he writes of half a boiled calf’s head, ‘you should inquire whether he would have any of the tongue or brains,’ which he adds would normally come separately, indeed fried as a cake.
Dr Tusler also offers shopping advice, mentioning that one should be careful of butchers who have a habit of adding to your bills joints you never ordered and who frequently rounded up bills…And one should not just look at meat but touch it. For cow beef: ‘press the fleshy part with your finger and if young it will leave no dent. For lamb: ’take notice of the neck-vein; if it be of a bright blue, it is fresh killed: if greenish or yellowish, it is bad…’ Similarly for freshly killed pork ‘put your finger under the bone that comes out of the leg and if it be tainted you will find it by smelling your finger; the flesh of stale pork is sweaty and clammy, that of fresh-killed pork, cool and smooth.’
He ends his book with his hints ‘worth the attention of young persons’, which I’ll summarise:
‘Be modest, avoid lying, attend to the women, kiss not the ladies, be remarkable for cleanliness, use fashionable language, acquire small talk, flatter delicately, seem friendly to enemies, never see an affront if you can help it, doubt him who swears to the truth of a thing, avoid frequent and noisy laughter, affect not the rake, be secret, look not at your watch in company, make no one in company feel his inferiority, hum no tune in company, spit not on the carpet, use no hackneyed expression, hold no one by the button in conversation, punch no one in conversation, be not morose or surly, few jokes will bear repeating, interrupt no one’s story…’
And as for young women: ‘be discreet, accept no presents of value from men, seem not to hear improper conversation, read no novels, but let your study be history etc, trust no female acquaintance, form no friendships with men.’
All of which advice is fabulous for me but still leaves me scratching my head as to how to deal with the three-year-old…