Table etiquette is the customs and rules that govern socially acceptable eating practices. It encompasses eating utensils and equipment and their display and use, and the way people eat food when they sit down to a meal. For some people, table etiquette is important, but for many, eating is a more casual experience in which only the most basic customs are observed.
Dressing for dinner
Sarah Selwyn, wife of the first Bishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn, paid great heed to etiquette and table manners. Everyone who dined at her table had to ‘dress for dinner’ (wear formal clothes) even if the evening meal was a light one of tea and bread.
Basic habits passed from parents to children include washing hands before eating, holding utensils correctly, keeping elbows off the table, not talking with full mouths, not putting knives in mouths, leaving utensils together on the plate when the meal is finished and asking permission to leave the table. Such conventions would have been familiar to children growing up in the 19th century, as well as their 21st-century counterparts.
Decorous drinking and sparing eating
Enquire within, a New Zealand etiquette and handy-hints book published from around the 1930s to the 1950s, had a section entitled ‘How to behave at the table’. Mainly comprising ‘nevers’ and ‘do nots’, the 20 instructions were primarily designed to prevent people from committing faux pas at dinner parties. Choice examples include ‘when drinking do not raise your glass above your lips, raise perpendicularly to lips, and then to slight angle’ and ‘never eat the last mouthful of soup, or last fragment of bread, or last mouthful of food. You are not expected to clean everything up.’1
19th-century household management guides provided information on serving meals, laying tables, napkin folding and table decorations for those concerned with such things. These books assumed that middle- and upper-class families would follow these practices on a daily basis, though they also provided suggestions for special occasions such as dinner parties. Books and magazine articles on this topic were still published in the 21st century, but their suggestions were clearly aimed at givers of dinner parties and not intended for daily use.
Utensils and equipment
Traditional Māori communities served food in baskets, which were shared between small groups. High-ranking people had their own basket and were always given a new basket for tapu reasons. Food was eaten by hand and meat was passed around the group.
Rusty spoons and brassy forks
Margaret Herring wrote to her sister Nellie in 1861, describing the relaxed housekeeping method of her hosts Hannah and Richard Barton: ‘Mrs B. is a woman of tremendous energy and triumphs in the possession of a will strong enough for a dozen women, but her contempt for what she calls “petty paltry pride” makes her do everything in a rough and ready fashion and encourages herself in a disregard for the refinements of life which to me is blameworthy even in this remote district … On the table for instance, silver sugar basin and rusty iron salt spoons, silver table spoons and common brassy looking forks and old tin tea pot.’2
European settlers brought eating utensils and equipment – knives, forks, spoons and plates – with them. Some came with a diverse array of equipment beyond the basics so they could replicate the elegant dining practices of home. Others were happy to throw off these social shackles and eat in a more relaxed fashion.
Saying grace is giving thanks to the Christian God for food before eating a meal. Non-Christian religions may give thanks to their own deities. One well-known grace is ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful’. Saying grace was once a common way to begin a meal but its use declined throughout the 20th century as fewer people went to church.