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.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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