Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wake Up And Smell The Popcorn

Photo courtesy Flickr

On Saturday, I watched The Butler the way I most enjoy film: first-run on a big screen in a downtown theater. The early scenes of home training reminded me of my grandmother’s standards at table-these days all too easily dismissed as complicated and pretentious or menial. Originally, the butler slept in front of the strong box that secured the family's treasure. The ornamental porcelain figures in the photo would have been formed from sweet almond paste in an earlier period and have been intended to be eaten as part of the dessert course. The Oxford illustration is of a middle class table setting from the eighteenth century. The lavish table menu was intended to feed the staff as well as the family and its guests. One estate in England still distributes leftovers to the poor of the area. The practice is identical to the  hunting and gathering custom of distributing parts of a kill, and is an efficient way to distribute food in the absence of refrigeration. The table of an estate in this period would undoubtedly have included game from the park and an opening fish course caught in a local lake or stream.

The customs of the table have medieval roots. I believe they are the core of our civilization and the heart and soul of health management. The crone rocking on the film's veranda, who supervised health and medicine on the plantation, would not have been unaware of the value of the skills she was sharing with the young houseman. The silver that in the film makes presenting a simple cup of coffee such a supportive experience is a traditional store of wealth of the lady of the house, dating from a time when women did not inherit real estate.  The laws of the South during the period of the film, at least the law of the state of Virginia, date from the sixteenth century and define a class of lesser white citizens that includes "women, children, the mentally [unfit]". Silver has anti-bacterial properties, too, making it especially suitable for use with food. Back in the day, the non-toxic metal alternative to silver was steel, which develops carcinogenic rust and is therefore high maintenance. The ritual pre-heating of the cup dates from the period before we squandered energy on central heating. A boiling water rinse kills surface bacteria and dismisses dust. The practice is as useful in the field as under a roof. Japan values boiling water so highly that there is a special word for it.

A typical medieval hall house might be no larger than a one-car garage. It might have sheltered twenty people, most of whom worked outdoors during the day. Knowing those circumstances makes it easy to appreciate the rigid forms of etiquette that keep people from fighting over scraps of food at what rightly is a communion table. Until the central state became strong enough to assure border security and offer jobs in the capital, a medieval household would have been staffed by family. Before imperial successes and the industrial revolution, the survival of a European culture depended on citizens of privilege conforming to carefully prescribed forms of dress and behavior. Marie Antoinette’s calico dresses were the lost nail in the horseshoe of the French aristocracy.

Convention doesn’t have to be stuffy; it doesn’t hurt for it to be righteous. 


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