Monday, December 15, 2014


Photo courtesy Flickr user cementley
The recent first-class incident on an airliner brings to mind reasonable considerations of table service and traditional responsibility for the well-being of guests. The resignation and apologies from the airline executives who were involved seem to me to be outstanding examples of Confucian virtue, as far as my limited understanding of Korean culture permits.

Presenting food in commercial packaging is a Western as well as an Asian issue. The woman whose objections to being presented with a package of nuts became an international news story was voicing the same concerns as the immigrant mother of an Italian acquaintance who was shocked and angry that her daughter had set a pint of cream on the table.

Casual reading in the history of English domestic architecture brought me a glossy image of the dairy of a stately home, where eighteenth century milk was proudly cooled on a stone table in an elevated stream of running water. An estate was self-sufficient, like many an ordinary farm stead in many a country. Only the diligent efforts of the owners protected the quality of the produce and the family’s standard of living. The rise of specialized food production and commercial distribution generated identifiable commercial packaging. 

Before Pasteur, social custom inhibited the spread of disease by requiring indirect transmission of things and foodstuffs. A tray and a gloved hand stood between the writer of a letter and the reader of the same; a container or paper membrane stood between drink or eat and the consumer. One bacterium could take the wealth of generations and the future of a family.

It cannot be known who handles a package of food between the producer and the diner. Short of washing every cellophane packet that goes on the table or seat tray, the most sanitary way to set out a snack is to pour it into a dish. What happens after that is the diner’s business. Presumably her fingers are clean.

Antibiotics compromised sanitary food handling practice. Viruses and resistant strains of bacteria demand conscious and careful management. With ebola only a flight away, I can appreciate that a bag of nuts is not simply a bag of nuts.


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