From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 53
Keep Both Hands on the Table
One of my most unhappy childhood memories revolves around being forced to wear a monkey suit to Sunday school each week, with the circulation to my brain cut off from having to wear a necktie. Another equally unpleasant memory was being forced to adhere to the table manners prescribed by Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt during formal holiday dinners. I would argue that I never saw Jesus all suited up in an uncomfortable manner. He always seemed relaxed and cheerful in a loose-fitting robe and sandals, and I suspected that Jesus always ate with his bare hands since forks hadn’t even been invented back then.

A number of years ago, Sue and I stayed at the famous Reid’s Hotel on the Island of Madeira while following in the footsteps of the Genovese explorer Christopher Columbus. The place was like a morgue with dozens of stony, silent English aristocrats dressed to the nines and exercising such precise movements while eating that they resembled depressed automatons rather than living, breathing, human beings.

In my opinion, things have gone down hill for both the English and subsequently the Americans since the time of Henry VIII when feasting was a jocular sport. I couldn’t imagine old Henry sitting stiffly at a table with his hands in his lap. Then when it was the proper time to take a dainty bite of roast, his hands arise from his lap and gently take the knife in his right hand and the fork with tines down in his left. With his left, he holds the roast while cutting off a tiny chunk with his right using rhythmic sawing motions. The knife is laid to rest on the right side of the plate, and with his left hand, he gently stabs the morsel.

Now here is the part that I really find quite stupid. He moves the fork with the piece of beef above the table toward the center of the plate, and then his right hand takes the fork. Then the fork moves toward his mouth where the morsel will be received. Removing the fork from his mouth, it is taken by the left hand and placed on the left side of the plate as the right hand gravitates to its mysterious resting spot somewhere under the tabletop. This is followed by the left hand that finds its way to a similar position.
This tortuous and ridiculous process continues throughout the meal during which time I have had the unfortunate experience of being tortured by some of these “highly cultured” individuals. They think nothing of smacking with their mouths open, sneezing on the food, blowing their noses, belching, and even sometimes making loud and odoriferous emissions from their gastrointestinal system.

God bless the Italians who have not only made cooking a fine art but have made the consumption of food a pleasurable experience. First Rule: “Keep both hands on the table.” Second Rule: “Don’t keep switching your implements back and forth throughout the meal.” Third Rule: “Make every bite a relaxing and pleasurable experience.” Fourth Rule: “Be human and prove it by talking, flirting, greeting, singing, joking, visiting, drinking wine, and making mealtime both a culinary as well as a social experience.” Fifth Rule: “Keep both hands on the table”.

The real reason for the First Rule and the Fifth Rule is this. It has been observed for well over 2,000 years in Gioviano and throughout the Italian Peninsula that the hot Italian blood that is stirred up during the flirting and wine drinking would no doubt lead to some hanky-panky if folks were allowed to hide their hands under the table during the course of the meal. This rule is frequently broken by young people in love, but since in Italy men think that they are young and in love until they are toted out to the camposanto (cemetery), it has to apply to all age groups.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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