Saturday, November 07, 2009

William O. Beeman--Commensality--Table Fellowship (interview)

http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/taste/69079902.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU

Commensality: Table fellowship



Mind your manners, and all is well at the table.


By LEE SVITAK DEAN, Star Tribune
Last update: November 4, 2009 - 2:33 PM

Eating with others at a shared table is one of the most important human activities, says William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. There's even a word for it: commensality.

"There's not a society on Earth where human beings don't engage in eating together as a really important activity," he said. "The process of eating together actually takes on the quality of a kind of social ritual."

Consider how people, gathered around a table, generally don't start eating until everyone has food. "That little principle of starting at the same time is widespread on the planet and almost universally observed," said Beeman, who will speak Nov. 5 on global table manners and etiquette at the Bell Museum, as part of the "Hungry Planet" exhibit.

Meals often have a ritual that reflects the beginning of the event, be it a toast or invocation as simple as "bon appétit!"

Most table manners reflect a transition between the act of eating and other kinds of social life. In many societies, there may be a kind of hierarchical movement to the table, with the most prominent people first and then others following.

Think rank doesn't matter in this country? At the White House, there is a chief of protocol who makes certain that people are placed at the dinner table in the right order. "The person who sits next to the First Lady gets the real place of honor and you might be insulted if you don't get that place," said Beeman.

The act of eating is not particularly pleasant to watch, regardless of culture. Beeman noted that the physical body is an important boundary everywhere, and rituals are set so we make sure there's a clear transition between inside and outside (such as ingesting).

Societies try to make eating as gracious as possible. In cultures where food is to be eaten with fingers, for example, hands are washed in public, as a courtesy to others.

Generally, table manners are intended to facilitate the social event, whether it's a dinner party or a family sitting together at the table.
"The goal is for the meal to go along well for everyone," Beeman said.

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