In her Beyond Fate (Massey Lectures) (CBC Massey Lecture ) (15-16) , the always-stimulating Margaret Visser describes the cultural achievement of making a “place” at table.

For us Westerners, “Each diner sits on an upright, separate chair drawn up to a table on which is laid his or her ‘place.’ This is an area bounded by metal slicing, piercing, dipping, and digging instruments, or cutlery; the knife, the fork, the spoon, and sometimes more than one of each. The plate with food on it is round - an unbroken ring, holding the diner’s portion. We also speak of a person’s lot or fate as his or her ‘portion’ in life.”

We take this as natural, but it ain’t: “Separateness at the table, like the table itself, is highly specific to our own culture - and a relatively recent achievement. It took centuries to develop, and enormous amounts of effort and constraint went into its elaboration . . . . We had to invent plates; to force people never to touch food with their hands; to create forks, change the shapes of knives, and insist that people not point with the cutlery.”

We don’t grab food from another’s plate, nor eat from a common bowl. Visser sees in this “the embodiment of that image of ourselves as bounded areas.” At the table “we were slowly becoming more and more individualistic.”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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