In a recent newspaper article, Nigella Lawson explained that her late mother had a “different take” on table etiquette. When she was a child, Nigella wrote, everyone in her family talked noisily “with their mouths full”, and were told to start immediately rather than wait for others to be served. And there was no asking someone to pass the salt. “Don’t ask, stretch!” her mother would insist, so as not to interrupt the flow of dinner table chat.
Quirky, for sure, but perhaps Nigella’s mother was just ahead of her time. These days, few of us have an appetite for Downton Abbey-style dining strictures; mealtime rules have moved on. Debrett’s, the ancient arbiter of etiquette, still upholds mealtime conventions that have long seemed arcane and – let’s face it – joylessly imperious.
My own unscientific Twitter straw poll of friends and the food-obsessed found universal agreement with Lawson senior on the point of eating as soon as you are served, in contrast to Debrett’s directive to wait. “You spend hours in the kitchen cooking a meal and then you find everyone at the table standing on ceremony as the food goes cold,” a friend and keen cook says. “It really makes me annoyed. “
Of course, styles of courtesy change over time – and vary between cultures. To “fare la scarpetta” – literally make a little shoe– is the Italian tradition of mopping up the last of the sauce on your plate with bread. It’s a practice my late father-in-law regarded as a dinner table sin – not a view shared in food circles these days.
Thane Prince, food writer and star of the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge is unequivocal. “It’s just wrong to leave sauce on a plate,” she says. “When bread is not to be found I have been known to discretely run my finger across the plate and lick it.” Mark Hartstone, award-winning chef proprietor of La Fosse Cranborne in Dorset agrees. “It’s definitely good table manners and a compliment to the chef”. In fact, it seems that tucking in with your hands is now perfectly acceptable when eating some cuisines – and not just pizza. Ishita, author of Bristol food blog With Mustard, regularly eats with her hands at top-end Indian restaurants and no one gives it a second thought.
She stresses, however, that rules apply if you opt to dispense with cutlery. “Never use your hands to take food from communal dishes or when serving food – there are serving paddles and spoons for that,” she urges. “Sauces and gravies should not drip down your arms – there's a way of using rice, bread and your fingers to mop it up properly. But the biggest thing is never to use your left hand when eating or passing food. The left hand used for dirty work.”
As for agonizing about which piece of cutlery should be used when, maybe we should adopt Nigella Lawson’s approach – clearly inherited from her maverick mother. Nigella bungs the knives and forks in a canister on the table and gets guests to help themselves. It makes perfect sense to me.