Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox
Eating In: Dining Settings and Styles
Every meal is a message, and where we eat is as important as what we eat in getting the message across. Why do we not eat all our meals in the dining room? Its name would suggest that this is its purpose. But the very fact that we call it the "dining" room and not the "eating" room, tells its own story. The dining room is usually reserved for "ceremonial" meals: those involving extended families on special occasions - older relatives, in-laws, and important guests to be impressed. It is probably the most absurdly underused room in the house, and a conspicuous waste of space. Despite the modern trend to more informal dining, recent surveys have shown an overwhelming majority of home buyers requesting a dining room. When asked for what purpose it was needed, they usually replied, "to entertain the boss and his wife" - something that might happen at best once a year. This suggests that the fourteen-by-twelve-foot room with its dignified and dedicated furnishings is more a shrine to ambition and hope than a functioning part of the home.
The whole idea of separating the dining room from the kitchen was, of course, part of the general middle-class attempt to ape the upper class. The latter wished to sever their seating experience from the dirty, noisy, and smelly process that produced it. This often meant that food had to travel literally miles from kitchen to banqueting hall. On a smaller scale, the ambitious middle class imitated this practice.
Perhaps it was because servants were relegated to the kitchen and entered the dining room only as menials, that the progressive, egalitarian members of the middle class in the 1950s and 1960s consciously revolted against the tradition of separate dining. An orgy of wall destruction ensued which erased the distinction between the kitchen and dining room. This became a popular trend and influenced new-house design, where dining rooms gave way to "eating areas" and dinner parties to informal buffets. Of course, this was done in the name of efficiency rather than ideology, but we often disguise our ideological preferences this way, even to ourselves. And it was not a universally recognized efficiency: the dining-room crowd hung in there, and with a swing back to a more conservative ideology, there has been a swing back to more formal dining.
Despite this, entertaining at home has in general become more informal, less predictable, and more fun. There is no longer a rigid formula for "perfect entertaining," and media advice reflects this trend. There is much more room for spontaneity; more of what the hostess (or often the host) is into at the time. We no longer need to impress with the solemn procession of courses: soup, fish, meat, dessert, etc. (a system of eating that originated in Russia and was brought west by the Frenchman Careme). We can present a mixture of Japanese, Regional Italian, Vegetarian Gourmet, and Cuisine Minceur. The basic rule now seems to be: do what pleases you and is fun. The main requirement is: be innovative and surprise people. And this does not require elaborate and impressive preparation. Indeed, there is a premium on elegant simplicity: the original and unusual combination of simple elements. Thus, entertaining has become livelier, more expressive of personal style and flair, more creative, and undoubtedly more enjoyable.
Compare two different entertaining menus: one a formal dinner party of 1953, served in the dining room, with perhaps coffee and liqueurs in the sitting room; the other an informal evening buffet of 1993, served in the kitchen/dining area, with the guests ranging over the "reception" rooms of the house to eat. Both menus recognize the importance of the occasion - entertaining important guests, for example.
Despite the informality of menu 2, there are still some distinctions that are strictly observed. The essence of entertaining is still the display of concern and effort for the welfare of the guests. Despite the enormous popularity of frozen and convenience food, and of ready-made "take-out" meals, these would never be served to guests. The foods served on these ceremonial occasions have to be "special" - to demonstrate thoughtfulness and care on the part of the hosts, even if they no longer need to demonstrate the conspicuous consumption of time, money, servants, and energy. The food on the 1993 menu can all be made in advance, but it is all hand prepared and requires thought and effort. The mode of preparation fits the lifestyle of the new working couple, and the new kitchen technology - particularly the food processor and the microwave oven. No one expects beef Wellington any more, but the quality, style, and flair of the chili con carne (with fresh cilantro sprinkled on top for the little extra touch) will be just as critically appraised and warmly appreciated. The content may change, but the message remains the same: You are important guests and we have taken care and trouble on your behalf.
Dinner Party circa 1953 Mulligatawny Soup – Amontillado Sole Meuniere – Chablis Beef Wellington – Burgundy Brussels Sprouts Potatoes au gratin Artichoke hearts Salade Verte Tarte aux framboises – Sauternes Assorted cheeses – Port/Claret Fruit Coffee – Brandy/Liqueurs Dinner Buffet circa 1993 Quiche Lorraine – Beaujolais Nouveau Spinach Quiche – Australian Chardonnay Broccoli and Ham Quiche Pasta Salad – Decaffeinated Coffee Bean Salad – Fruit Juices, Perrier Chile con Carne Ginger Chicken Pieces/Snow Peas Melon Balls with Prosciutto Warm Wheel of Brie with Almonds French Bread/Rolls Fresh Fruit