Strange Customs and Taboos

Hospitality and etiquette

In primitive times, hospitality most often found expression in great feasts in honor of some momentous event or to pay homage to an important visitor. The Egyptians of 4,000 years ago feasted in great halls, offering food to their gods before they themselves touched a morsel. The Egyptians were fond of elaborate dinners as a form of entertainment, the serving of food continuing for several hours. Both men and women were invited, and dining couches and small tables were provided for the guests, who regaled themselves with dishes of fowl, game, fish, bread, and wine.

In Homer's Iliad, the Greeks are portrayed as hosts of magnificent banquets who celebrated with sumptuous feasts all important events in their lives, such as births, marriages, holidays, and victories in warfare.

During the days when the Roman Empire flourished, the feasts in Rome surpassed any others, because the wealthy had the food products that enabled them to dine in lavish style, and what delicacies they might have lacked, they sent for, sending their representatives throughout the known world to obtain choice fruits and viands. The Romans were noted for their hospitality. Nothing was too rich or too costly for the entertainment of their guests.

The ancient Israelites gave great feasts on special occasions, but their hospitality extended to strangers and to the poor as well as to important guests and to friends who would be likely to reciprocate. "When the Holy One loves a man," states the Zohar, Genesis 104a, "He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he might perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw to himself a cord of grace." In Deuteronomy 15:11, it is written that "You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor in the land."

Based on a cursory examination of hospitality from the historical perspective, it may appear that for centuries there were only two strata of society—the wealthy and the powerful who entertained lavishly and the laboring classes who could share their bread only when they had some to spare. The poorer people could celebrate their marriages and births as best they could within their own family structures, but they were too vitally concerned with the daily task of survival to develop the art of hospitality.

However, as the major world religions developed into powerful forces that shaped human society, hospitality and charity became virtues. In order to establish a more complete relationship with the Divine, according to the prophets and teachers of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and other faiths, it is important to recognize all people as brothers and sisters and to minister to their needs when the opportunity to do so presents itself. The Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 15 (Islam) admonishes those who believe in Allah and in the Last Day to be generous to their neighbors and to their guests. In the Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2 (Hinduism) it is written that the husband and wife of the house should never turn away those who come to their door asking for food. And Hebrews 13:2 (Christianity) offers the provocative suggestion that people should not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, "for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Table manners, even those considered the most basic rules of etiquette, were a long time in coming to human forebears. When a meal was simply an assortment of food set before hungry individuals, men and women ate to satisfy themselves as quickly as possible—and let the bones and bits of food fall where they may.

As food and the serving thereof became more elaborate and began to assume more of a social significance, the eating manners of the diners changed also. When forks and knives and other eating utensils first made their appearance on the dinner tables of the wealthy and the powerful, the process of eating a meal entered the early stages of becoming transformed into more of a ceremony. Soon, arbiters of fashion were instructing others how to use their eating utensils and informing those men and women who were becoming conscious of the social significance of dining that some eating practices were correct and others were incorrect.

Later, when the use of knives and forks became more general, the common people began to pattern their behavior at the dinner table after the wealthy and powerful who had grown accustomed to using the implements. Although it was much easier to eat with their hands and a knife in the primitive manner of their ancestors, the lower social classes have always wished to pattern themselves in as many ways as possible with the wealthier classes. The new ways of eating with knife and fork, dinner plates and cups, and a certain ceremony in the dining process slowly left the courts and the dining rooms of the wealthy and eventually established themselves in the humblest of homes.

Food Kinship. From the earliest times, eating and drinking together has provided an elementary form of hospitality. Anthropologists have recorded that even in the most primitive of tribal cultures, once people have broken bread with strangers or taken a drink with them, they considered one another on peaceful terms. Once that relationship has been established, the people are under an obligation to protect one another if they are in danger.

In many of the villages on the Philippine Islands, hospitality and friendship are expressed by eating together. On Sumatra, a large island in western Indonesia, a guest is presented with betel nut as a gesture of friendliness. On Java, the main island of Indonesia, hosts of higher social rank pay their inferiors a high compliment if they offer them their half-chewed betel nut.

Throughout Tahiti, the standard formula for hospitality is "Come and eat with us." Among the tribespeople in Kenya, visitors to villages are presented with a cup of water as a ceremonial mark of hospitality, and the welcoming salutation is, "Let us be friends."

Among all cultures, in ancient or modern times, it has never been good form to refuse the offer of food or drink. Around the world, to accept such an offer is considered an act of common politeness, whether one wants it or not. Among the nomadic Bedouins of the desert, it has always been considered a serious breach of etiquette to ride up to the front of a family's tent without stopping and eating their bread. According to the Bedouin code of manners, the man in the tent will consider himself insulted by such rudeness and will from that time on regard the other man as an enemy.

Courtesy Toward Guests. Historical records indicate that all important guests at the pharaoh's palace in Egypt had their names and symbols engraved on the "guest wall," just as modern guests inscribe their names in their hosts' guest book. Among the wealthy of Egypt, lunch was served at midday and dinner at night. When invited to dine in ancient Egypt, people brought along their servants, and it wasn't considered impolite for guests to bring with them whatever items of comfort that they might need during their stay.

The Egyptian hosts anointed their guests with oil upon their arrival. The host and hostess, together with their guests, dined while seated in long halls and were served by household slaves. The Egyptian hosts supplied one whole chair for each single guest, but a married couple had to share one between them. The highest in rank among the guests sat with the host at the head of the table. Everyone dipped bread into a common dish of oil and helped themselves to other food placed in the center of the table.

As soon as guests arrived in the home of an ancient Greek host, servants brought in vases of water so they might freshen themselves. After the guests had washed their hands and feet, they were given goblets of wine and stood around gossiping until summoned to dinner.

The Greeks ate three meals daily. Their tables were uncovered, and they ate while reclining on couches, using their fingers in primitive fashion. Water was provided several times during the course of the meal for washing the hands. The highest in rank had their hands washed first; the lowest, last.

Among the Romans there was usually a place of honor at the dining table. The highest in rank sat at the head, the next in rank at the upper end, and the third highest in social position sat at the lower end. All guests washed their hands at the table before eating, a ceremonial washing that began with the highest in rank and ended with the lowest.

Wealthy Romans rarely invited guests to their homes for the midday meal, but they frequently had visitors over in the evening for the most important meal of the day, consisting of from three to seven courses. The host and hostess gave each guest an exact list of the courses and all the individual dishes of the feast, and then they led their guests into the dining hall. As they were being seated, servants draped the members of the dinner party with a wreath of flowers and offered them a goblet of wine.

After a period of Roman history when chairs or stools were used around a table, the Romans adopted the dining couch. Generally, three couches were at a table, with one side left open to receive the service. Four people could dine comfortably from one couch. They were low, without backs, and covered with rich fabrics. The host and his wife sat at the head table with the guest of honor. The rest of the guests took places at the other tables according to rank.

In many of the old Arab nations, the host and hostess welcomed their guests by pouring melted butter on their heads. While the idea might seem repugnant to modern guests arriving at a home in a hot climate, the melted butter was deemed fashionable and refreshing in earlier times.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, favored guests always sat at the right of the host and were helped to the choicest cuts of meat, the rarest fruits, the costliest wines. The custom of "coupling" guests, that is, placing them at the table in pairs of men and women, was introduced about 1455 when it became fashionable to place a gentleman and a lady together to share a single cup and plate.

Whom to serve first may be a problem of some concern for the modern hostess, but among early people it was the custom for the host to take the first bite to prove that the food was safe or free from poison. Among the aboriginal people of New Guinea, it is a mark of courtesy and hospitality to offer water to a stranger, but before doing so, the hosts drink a little of the water themselves to prove it is not dangerous in any way. Similar customs are to be found in many tribes of Africa, where the wife of the host is assigned the position of always taking the first drink of any beverage to prove that it has no evil in it. In medieval Europe, it was also the courteous hostesses who had the obligation to serve themselves first to prove that the food and drink was safe.

The Dinner Table. Quite likely the first dinner table was a fairly flat slab of rock on which whatever game or fish had been caught was placed by a primitive hunter to be shared with his family. If such an early table did exist in a cave occupied by early humans, they probably sat on the floor or, at best, smaller rocks for chairs. The development of the dinner table and eating utensils grew along with the culinary arts when food was no longer eaten raw without preparation of any sort.

In ancient Rome, men and women reclined on couches while eating from beautifully decorated tables. Most of these dinner tables were square with four legs or oval with three connected legs, much like modern tables, except positioned lower for the convenience of diners who were reclining. The materials used for constructing such elaborate tables were at first wood, most commonly maple, and later bronze with inlaid ivory designs. Often the carpenter or metalworker fashioning the table shaped its legs to imitate those of various animals, complete with claws. Such a peculiarity remains popular today, for tables and other items of furniture are frequently made with clawed legs, often gripping a ball.

By around 400 C.E., it was an established custom among the people of the "civilized" European countries to eat from some kind of table. The dinner table existed in various forms, however, and often was simply a board running around the side of the house. The mantelpiece is said to have originated with this old dining board.

Even by the 1700s, the dinner table in many of the poorer homes consisted only of a long wide board that was folded down from the wall and used at meal time. Many homes owned only one decent chair, and the head of the household, the father, was the one who got to sit in it while the rest of the family ate while sitting on the floor. On special occasions when a male guest was invited to share the meal, the father would relinquish his chair to him.

Although the chair reached a high degree of development among most of the European nations, it failed to gain much of a foothold among various other peoples.

Eating Utensils. Humankind's first eating utensil was some form of the spoon or the ladle. Museums display spoons of wood, stone, and ivory that were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Spoon-like implements belonging to the Paleolithic Age have been found in caves in France and other European countries, thereby indicating that early humans used such eating utensils as far back as 100,000 or more years.

The Greeks and Romans used spoons of bronze and silver, some exquisitely wrought by the hands of master craftspersons. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the wealthy ate with elaborate spoons of beaten silver, but the materials used for making spoons by the poorer classes were bone, wood, and tin. The Chinese, in addition to their chopsticks, ate with little painted porcelain spoons.

The use of the knife and fork did not become widespread until about 300 years ago. Even at the magnificent French court of Louis XIV (1638–1715), forks for eating purposes were unknown.

Although both knives and forks have been in existence since early times and were used as effective tools for many different purposes, it took centuries before anyone thought of using them at the dinner table. Some authorities suggest that the first "fork" early humans used was quite likely a long, two-pronged twig that was used to hold meat over the fire while it was cooking. Later, such prongs were made of iron or bone and were used for the same purpose.

The fork was not entirely unknown in medieval France, but it was used only on occasion for bringing large chunks of hot meat from the fire to the table. In England, the fork had been used through the Middle Ages as a utensil for eating fruits and preserves, but not at the table to eat one's dinner.

Based on the evidence of primitive cutting implements in archaeological digs dating back nearly a million years, even humankind's earliest ancestors used some kind of cutting implement. Perhaps those elementary tools were originally fragments of flint or other stone, but it seems clear that the knife, or some kind of cutting tool, was one of the first implements to be devised by early humans.

The knife took many forms and was made of many materials during the course of its development. The first knives were made of flint and bone and used for all cutting purposes. For centuries, whether the knife was made of flint, bronze, or steel, both men and women carried a knife in their belts or knapsacks. Whenever large portions of food were served, they sliced off a piece for themselves with their knives, and then returned the cutting implement to their belt or knapsack. But there was no such thing as a special knife to be used while eating dinner, whether seated at a table or on the floor.

As with the development of the dinner fork, the greatest advance in the history of the table knife took place after the seventeenth century. Silver knives for table use were introduced in England and became popular. Sheffield, England, became one of the greatest cutlery manufacturing centers in the world and has retained such a position with few challengers.

The earliest dinner plates were undoubtedly formed by nature, rather than humans. Perhaps primitive humans used a broad leaf, a halved gourd, or a sea shell in the same manner that one uses a cup or bowl. However, even in early prehistory, humans discovered the vast uses of clay and made for themselves jars, jugs, and drinking vessels.

Among the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Egyptians, pottery developed into a fine art, and some of the examples still in existence today are in museums. The ancient people of Mexico and Peru, the Mayans and the Incans, also made beautiful pottery.

Although the human ancestors may have boasted many pots, jugs, plates, and even cups and saucers, the use of separate dishes for each person is comparatively recent. For many centuries, among rich and poor alike, food would be brought to the table on large platters and placed on the bare table. In wealthy homes, a steward or the host used a double-pronged fork and a large knife to carve the meat on the platter, and then, whether in a banquet hall or in a home, the assembled diners used their fingers to pick up the pieces they wished. Fruit and bread loaves were placed in baskets on the floor by the tables, and people helped themselves as they liked.

Eventually, those families with money in Europe and England bought dinner plates made of pewter. However, food with a high acid content caused some of the lead used in the process of creating pewter to be absorbed into the meal, causing lead poisoning and often death. The more observant began to notice that these terrible consequences after eating from pewter plates occurred most often with tomatoes, so for hundreds of years the tomato was considered poisonous.

The poorer families could not afford pewter plates, but they used trenchers, a piece of wood with the center scooped out, as bowls to hold their food. Unfortunately, in those days hygiene was virtually unknown, so the trenchers were seldom cleaned, and often worms and mold got into the wood and spread diseases called "trench mouth" to unsuspecting diners.

Hand Washing and Bathing. It is known that among the early Greeks it was considered ill-mannered to attempt to recline at the dinner table before visiting with the other guests and washing one's hands. Servants brought in vessels of water so that the custom of hand washing could be observed by all the guests, and not until they had done so were they permitted to dine.

The Romans washed their hands before and after dinner. Small basins were provided for guests for this purpose, and it was a common practice to drop a flower into the water to make it fragrant. This custom has survived today in many homes and restaurants in which a finger bowl with a flower petal in the water is brought to guests between courses of the meal or after they have finished eating.

Egyptians were welcomed to a dinner party by a special servant who anointed their head with oil and washed their hands. Sometimes the process was repeated during the course of the dinner; and before guests left the table, their hands were washed again.

The Hebrews made of a special ceremony of hand washing, and it was strictly observed that all people washed their hands before eating a meal, after returning from a funeral, and before making a burnt offering or a sacrifice at the temple.

A combination of superstition and misapplied religious fervor concerning nudity, modesty, and the frequency of bathing made medieval Europe a place where personal hygiene almost became a forgotten practice of the ancients. Even the more well-to-do families took "all-over" baths only twice a year, in May and October.

The biannual bath would take place in a large tub filled with hot water. The father, the head of the household, would be the first to bathe, enjoying clean, warm water. The sons would be next. After all of the men, including any visiting male relatives or guests, had their turn, the woman of the house, followed by any female children, would get to splash in water that had become quite cool and dirty. Babies of the household would be the very last to be dunked in the tub, and by then the water was so dark that mothers were warned not to throw their babies out with the bath water.

Women kept their hair covered at all times. Men shaved their heads and wore wigs, but only the wealthy could afford wigs of good quality. Rather than washing the wigs, it was fashionable to place the wig in a hollowed-out loaf of bread and bake it in the oven. The heat would make the wig puff up and become fluffy, which gave birth to the expression of "Big Wig" to describe a person of power or wealth.

Because they seldom washed their faces, many women and men had developed unsightly acne scars by the time they had reached adulthood. It became customary to spread bee's wax over the facial skin to smooth out rough complexions.

Asking the Blessing. The custom of saying a prayer before eating did not originate as an expression of thankfulness or gratitude to a deity. Early peoples offered a prayer that was a kind of exorcism before eating in order to distract any negative spirits that might have infested the food. Rather than thanking a deity for the blessing of giving them food to satisfy their hunger, the diners exhorted any negative entities to leave their food alone and to satisfy their hunger elsewhere.

Before a feast of celebration for a victory over their foes or the rewards of a successful hunt, primitive peoples often made sacrifices to their gods to be certain that the foods upon which they intended feasting would not poison them. From this custom of sacrifice and prayer before a feast, it seems likely that the practice of offering a prayer or asking a blessing before every meal became a custom that would eventually be practiced by the followers of all major world religions.

The Israelites appear to have been among the first to offer prayer before eating out of gratitude for having food to eat. "Surely it is of what belongs to God that you have eaten. So praise and bless Him by whose word the world was created," Father Abraham admonished (Talmud, Sota 10b).

Born into the Jewish tradition before his conversion to Christianity, Paul writes to the church in Ephesus that "God created foods to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth… nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" (I Timothy 4:3–5).

In the Koran, the holy book of Islam, it is written, "Eat of the good things that We have provided for you, and be grateful to God" (Koran 2:172).

The Toast. Most authorities agree that the custom of drinking to the health of a person originated with the practice of the host or hostess drinking first to show that the drink was not harmful. As the tradition progressed, it came to indicate a gesture of friendship and good will to the guest.

The Roman and the Greek hosts drank to the health of their guests, and both customs were likely to have originated as a means of proving that the wine was not poisoned. Neither a Greek nor a Roman gentleman would pass a cup of wine to a friend without having first tasted of it to prove its safety. It was such a custom that developed through the ages into the tradition of men drinking together as a pledge to friendship, fraternity, and good cheer. It was also a custom among the young men of Rome to drink as many glasses of wine as there were letters in their sweethearts' names.

Controversy exists over how the gesture of taking the first drink to prove it was safe or to salute one's friendship to a guest became known as a "toast." Some believe that sometime during the reign of Charles II of England (1630–1685; reigned 1660–85), a piece of toasted bread was accidentally dropped in a large pitcher of wine while guests were being served at a royal banquet, and a witty courtier remarked that although he was unable to drink any more wine, he could at least have the toast.

Others believe that the word, in connection with drinking to one's health, originated in eighteenth-century England in the custom of gentlemen sitting around a fireside, drinking and toasting bread on the hearth. A sip of drink and a bite of warm toast combined to offer a gesture of good will, friendship, and good health to one's companions.

Drinking toasts from a lady's slipper dates back to the eighteenth century. In certain parts of Hungary it was the custom for a groom to drink a toast to his bride out of her slipper on the wedding night. The slipper was removed from the bride's foot in front of all the assembled guests, filled with wine, and given to the groom. He made a toast to his bride, drank the wine, and threw the slipper to the guests.

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