Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sit-down meals – why nomads have the best table manners

Carrying is usually thought of as a hindrance or burden – however, one’s societal customs when it comes to carrying food are as varied as they are anthropologically revealing.

Primitive humans do not like to carry food – that is, they do not make an exception for food, in terms of the general rule of not being unnecessarily burdened. This means that they prefer to eat at the site of the kill/pick/harvest. In the West, the logistics of mass food production and retail make this hard to do literally, so a next-best-thing cultural substitute has arisen: the restaurant. Here, the adjoining kitchen is probably not the site of the kill/pick/harvest either, but the ceremonial, time-synchronised carrying (by strangers, not eaters) of the food from kitchen to table merely sanitises what is otherwise the closest thing Western humans will come to being seagulls squawking over a communal delicacy. That is, the restaurant-goer assuages their hunger at the food source, as immediately, greedily and individually as the restaurant custom of simultaneous plate presentation for each table allows.

Contrast the hunter-gatherer. While extremely light travellers in most respects, food is usually carried some distance from the site of the kill/pick/harvest. This may relate to “kitchen” hygiene (in the case of carnivorous meals), and more so, to supplies of water and firewood/fuel vis a vis the nomads’ “kitchen” and “table”. Most importantly though, the carrying of food is necessary to divorce the consumption of food from its production – that is, food will usually be shared even among those who had no hand in its killing/picking/harvesting.

All the restaurant “shared plates” in the world thus can’t disguise the intrinsic selfishness of the restaurant meal, and so perhaps also Western food consumption in general. Robust food-sharing customs are surely a pre-requisite to civilisation, but in the case of ethical eating, the West has either dropped, or refused to carry, its communal bundle.

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