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Smelling other people

November 03 2015

Holidays are on the way, meaning families will gather for sit down meals. Elbows off the table, napkin in your lap, and the in general, not at the dinner table will be heard all across the nation. But just where did these rules come from? Well, from the masters of eating—the Italians.

Eating is a physical need, but human mealtime has evolved into a social ritual, and driven by culture. For western Europeans and western culture, part of that is ritual at least meant to promote more sanitary conditions. The Renaissance was that time in history when Europe climbed out of a rather nasty period—the Dark Ages. And leading the way were the Italian city-states with a cultural revolution that included dinging habits. Italian poet Giovanni della Casa advised in his book on table manners, "Galateo," published in 1558: 

"One should not comb his hair nor wash his hands in public... The exception to this is the washing of the hands when done before sitting down to dinner, for then it should be done in full sight of others, even if you do not need to wash them at all, so that whoever dips into the same bowl as you will be certain of your cleanliness."
Wise advice, considering that one's hands were also one's dining utensils. Forks scarcely existed, or at most were used only for taking meat from the serving dish." Indeed, forks were initially viewed as excessively refined or, in the case of men, girly. Still, the fork custom began in Italy and became popular throughout the peninsula, although the utensil was slow to catch on in Northern Europe—go figure with those brutish Norsemen, barely a few centuries beyond their Viking era. As a result, wide acceptance of forks getting food from plate to mouth didn't become the rage until the 17th century, but mostly among the aristocracy who could afford them.
Examples of Renaissance period forks.

The fork’s sister utensil is the spoon, which was communally used, making the etiquette of eating soups a very delicate matter. "If what is given is rather fluid," Dutch theologian, Erasmus of Rotterdam, writes, "take it on a spoon for tasting and return the spoon after wiping it on a napkin." 

On respecting fellow diners' personal space, Giovanni Della Casa advises, "It is also an unsuitable habit to put one's nose over someone else's glass of wine or food to smell it." And again, from Erasmus: "It is rude to offer someone what you have half eaten yourself; it is boorish to re-dip half-eaten bread into the soup." Even modern science shows that double dipping partially eaten foods is a great means of spreading bacteria. It certainly gives you an idea of what Renaissance society was trying to improve upon—and how far we've come since.
How does this relate to furnishing? Simple, how we do things, our lifestyles and our rituals often dictate how we furnish a room—and to keep things seasonal, the next post will focus on the dining room.