The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners


432 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-00-215699-7
DDC 395'.54'09




Reviewed by Esther Fisher

Esther Fisher is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and
a former food critic for The Globe & Mail.


In her latest offering, Visser gives us a veritable feast—five full
courses and a postprandial review of our behavior at table. As the
subtitle conveys, Visser investigates why particular cultures, past and
present, behave as they do while dining.

She covers, among other things, attitudes toward various types of food
(for example, the sacrificial associations of meat and attendant ritual
practices); how inviting “company” (people other than immediate
family) to share food is fraught with possible hazards, explaining that
the words “host” and “guest” derive from the same Indo-European
root meaning “stranger,” one who might possibly be hostile, and that
inviting strangers into our inner, private domain is an act of trust,
which we hope will not be betrayed; and why gifts for the host should be
such things as candy, flowers, or wine—never anything lavish that
might be construed as payment for the meal.

In the longest and most anticipated chapter, “Dinner is Served,”
Visser guides us through the meal, from first bite through, among other
things, the use of cutlery, china, serving dishes, table linen,
alcoholic beverages, and the etiquette of table talk, to “all gone.”
On the way, she impresses upon us the power wielded by the host, who
controls who is invited, what is served, and where people sit, and
generally reigns supreme.

In “ No Offense,” the penultimate chapter, we discover some of the
inconsistencies expected of us while we eat; for example, it is de
rigueur to keep the mouth closed while eating, but at the same time
important to carry on polite conversation with fellow diners. And
finally, in “How Rude Are We,” we look back and check our
deportment: did we reach for food, keep our elbows on the table,
monopolize one person’s attention during mealtime, or can we be
pleased with our behavior? The book concludes with references and an
extensive bibliography.

One significant thread uniting the diverse range of Visser’s subject
is the role of a woman in gathering, preparing, and serving food,
arranging the table, and orchestrating the dinner. Her responsibility is
great, but traditionally her position has been secondary to that of the
man: he sits at the “head” of the table, she at the “foot”; at
barbecues, as a throwback to the days when the hunter provided the meat,
he, often with great drama, prepares the steaks, while “the little
woman” has the far more labor-intensive and less glamorous jobs of
coping with “veggies,” salads, and desserts.

The Rituals of Dinner is full of fascinating information and witty
comments about how and why we dine as we do, but since Visser is trying
to cover so much territory, it is difficult to say to whom this book is
directed. In an often rambling manner, it combines entertaining morsels
with a good deal of cultural anthropology. For the general reader, it
means considerable time spent plodding through what appears to be fairly
scholarly material; for the specialist or academic, the book lacks the
depth one would expect from a research work. But for anyone interested
in customs and habits associated with food, this is an excellent
reference book, and parts of it are a very good read.


Visser, Margaret., “The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,