THE RITUALS OF DINNER by Margaret Visser


The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners
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 In Much Depends on Dinner (1987), Visser drew on domestic and natural history, cultural anthropology, and personal observation for a fluent, free-ranging, item-by-item discussion of the separate foods (chicken, salt, ice cream, etc.) assembled for a hypothetical simple company dinner. Here, she applies the same comparative cultural and historical approach to dining etiquette and customs. Visser offers the same mix of scattered facts from other times and cultures and wry references to ``our own'' common practices; quotations from Erasmus, Barthes, Miss Manners, and many more; and, now and then, amusing anecdotes. The result is another feast for trivia-blotters with a taste for class. You can turn to any page and pull out plums on, say, the sequence of courses (the ``plot of the meal'') here, there, and then; the mode of gathering for feasts or family dinners in Africa, Papua New Guinea, ancient Greece, or ``our own'' dining rooms; or the use of alcohol by the Iteso of Kenya and Uganda or the Newars of Katmandu. And who would not be diverted by the news that the Last Supper, famous paintings notwithstanding, was a reclining meal; that the English until the 19th century kept chamber pots for guests' convenience in or just outside their dining rooms; or that Emily Post in 1922 advised hosts unable to provide wine to set out wineglasses anyway and ``pour something pinkish or yellowish into them''? Still, without the earlier book's more substantial subject matter, it is even easier to become numbed by the sheer miscellaneous meandering: the amassing of items without argument or direction; the repetition of much familiar secondary material; the belaboring explanation of what we already know or easily understand. And isn't it past the time when merely pointing out the status connotations of everyday practices, without pressing on to any stimulating insights, is considered perceptive wit?

Pub Date: July 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-8021-1116-5
Page count: 455pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1991


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