Dining Etiquette Through the Ages

07/28/2022     General Furniture & Decorative Arts

Since humans first gathered to share the bounty of a kill or harvest, there has been some kind of order and organization to the sharing of food. From the first meals where the head of the tribe ate first, followed by each of those in order of importance eating next, to the pinnacle of artifice during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, where there was a specialized utensil for each and every titbit on the table, there have been rules associated with dining.

Today, we’ve relaxed those rules tremendously as our lifestyles have become more casual, however, nothing is as special as being invited to dinner where all of the finery has been laid out; sterling silver, fine porcelain, leaded crystal, linen, and even on occasion, a place card. We’ve seen a resurgence in popularity of fine dining accoutrements in the last few years. In part, because, we’ve found ourselves eating at home more, with time to plan and think about meal preparation. And we like it. Not that we ever knew we missed it, but now that we’ve rediscovered how pleasant a nice dinner at home with nice things can be, it’s something to aspire to. If not every meal, at least on occasion. It makes time with family and friends special to have a seated dinner at a table with nice things. Even if some of us do buy prepared food and plate it out of cartons in the kitchen, rather than cook ourselves.

Did you know these tidbits about dining?
Did you know that the word 'tidbits' derives its meaning from the earliest form of dining? The chief or leader of a tribe would portion off the pieces of the roasted game and give the best pieces or tidbits to his favorite members of the clan.

Did you know the fork originated in Italy? And why would that be? Can you imagine eating spaghetti and sauce with a knife or spoon?

Did you know that silver emits isotopes that prevent infection and spread of disease?

Did you know that the first knives at the table were also used to hunt, kill and portion the meal, as well as for defense? They were pointed and sharp on both sides. And always placed on the right of the plate so that they could be grabbed quickly in defense by the right hand. Today we still place the knife on the right, and it’s only sharp on one side because there’s no longer a need to lash out at someone at the table (we hope).

Did you know that the blunt knives we use today are rounded at the ends, because in the 17th century, leaders of polite society found it offensive that after meals, diners would pick their teeth at the table with the point of their knives, so that they ordered all knife points to be ground down.

Did you know that nearly all early meals were stews? And that the spoon evolved from a shell attached to a stick which was used to taste the stew over a distance into the boiling pot so as not to scorch the hand from the steam.

Did you know that the first alcoholic beverages at large gatherings were for the most part shared from communal bowls? Punches ladled from large bowls were the common drink at gatherings and pubs. The individual made to order cocktail is an American invention and didn’t come about until the 19th century.

Did you know the word cocktail purportedly originates from the French word for egg cup? As it’s believed that the first cocktails were actually served in individual egg cups.

Did you know that people regularly drank beer and wine as water was unsafe? Often beer was consumed at breakfast.

Did you know that most wine came in wooden casks and was syphoned into decanters to be poured at the table? This was because bottles were very expensive and they would break easily during shipment over rough and almost nonexistent roads of the day.

Did you know that the earliest forms of plates were actually large slabs of hard bread? They would be used to sop up the juices from stews and then given to the lowest members of the household to eat, or to the dogs who ran free around the dining room.

Do you know why fish is traditionally eaten on Friday? It began with the Catholic Church as one of many religious days where no red meat could be eaten, as Jesus had died on a Friday. Then, in 1534, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church to free England and himself from their rules. Even as a child, Henry preferred to eat red meat, so the eating fish rules went, and going against Catholicism was a bonus. But English fishermen were suffering, so Friday became the one and only day required to eat fish .

Did you know that lobster and oysters were considered low caliber food in previous centuries. In fact, many servitude / employment contracts would stipulate that the servant only be fed lobster within certain limitations. The term Po’boy as referenced to a fried seafood sandwich was just that. A meal for a poor boy, often sold inexpensively at dockside to sailors and laborers.

Did you know that you rarely see a matched set of napkin rings until the 20th century? Why?, because the napkin ring was meant to keep the individuals napkin separate from everyone else’s napkin. One didn’t get a clean cloth napkin at every meal, but reused the same napkin throughout the day.

Do you know why the bowls and tines of certain implements as well as the decoration on many plates and goblets is gold? The acids in many food items will turn silver black, but doesn’t affect the gold.

Do you know why dessert plates and utensils are often the most elaborate items on the table? Citrus fruits and sugar had to be imported by sailing ships from far away locales, and were very expensive (not to mention perishable). Dessert was the most costly course of the meal.

And now you know these tidbits to tell at the table!

Entertaining with Style
In celebration of the dining experience, Doyle is pleased to offer a selection of fine dining accessories in our inaugural Entertaining with Style auction on August 11, 2022.

Reid Dunavant

Reid Dunavant

SVP / Director, DC / Mid-Atlantic Regional Advisory