Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr

The Sixties saw a relentless contest between traditional etiquette and comfortable expedience. It’s hardly news that a couple of generations have grown up innocent of the table manners that were so familiar and so important to our grandparents. Years of executing calligraphic social commissions left me well read in etiquette books current and vintage. When I’m performing a basic housekeeping function like setting the table, I have time to consider the merit of the habits of hundreds of years. Our table manners emerged from the rigid etiquette of a crowded extended medieval household, where behavioral choreography kept people productive and out of each other’s hair.

Last week-end’s unintentional outing into grizzly territory set the wisdom of table manners and good kitchen practice in neon. Rule after printed rule posted on the pillar of a campsite cooking shelter reiterated the importance of separating a person from any odor of food. A childhood spent reading books about animals, nature, and hunting opened my eyes to the importance of scent in communication. Viet Nam taught American troops the folly of smoking or wearing aftershave in the field. The US Forest Service carries the message to Everyhiker: do not sleep in the shirt you cooked in, sleep at least a hundred feet uphill from the cooking site, and puhleaze store food in the car or secured overhead from the animals. The sign didn’t mention rule number one: stay out of the field when menstruating. Extrapolating from the sign, I realized the wisdom of wearing an apron or chef’s jacket and hat while putting a meal together.

Every time I go into the woods, I gain new appreciation for Pilates’ emphasis on core strength. The upright posture that Pilates produces keeps food off the front of my shirt when I’m eating. Until corsets went out of fashion around 1910, a self-respecting woman did not let her back touch the upright part of a chair. In the eighteenth century, young women were trained using a “back board” set under a corset. Before the invention of the automobile, persons of advantage rode horses. That fosters upright posture and a focus in real time. Any Hollywood film or television horse opera will document the relationship between body language and character. The early technical advisors, like painter Charlie Russel, were recruited from ranches and the actors experienced horsemen.

The great social divide in the West is between the equestrian and other classes. Posture and marksmanship are at the core of the distinction. After the recent outing, it seems clear that having the fine motor skills to keep food scents off one’s person and being organized for personal cleanliness are key factors in the Darwinian contest.


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