The famous TV series Downton Abbey introduced the life of British royalties in 20th century, and I was fascinated with not only the ranking systems, but also the strict table culture of Britain—— the proper way for people to dress at a dining table, how people use knives and forks to convey information, how people stand and talk in certain way at the table —— all of these are indications of one’s identity and social class. As global citizens, it is important for us to understand those rules to prevent us from offending other people that are from a different culture, while establishing a favorable first impression. Nowadays, although the table manner are not as strict as before, the kitchen table remains as a cultural artifact to remind us of our past traditions and follow those that have special meanings.
At first, I did not pay much attention to the traditional European etiquette, since I had never experienced those rules that seems strange to me in real life. As soon as I saw two footmen from the Downton Abbey arguing about who should serve the meat and who should take the vegetables to the guests, I became curious about the table manners of British family. It turns out that for footmen of the house, whoever brings the main course to the table, he would be the man of the highest level among all the footmen. This phenomenon drew my attention and I decided to research more about the British kitchen table by interviewing my friend Aaron who is currently studying in London. In order to gain a better understanding about the culture and draw a wider conclusion for how the society work from a third-person perspective, I also decided to implement Participant-observation anthropological method from Eating Culture An Anthropological Guide to Food by Skyping with him when they are preparing for the dinner. The reason why I choose this method is that I am better able to gain insights from Aaron’s perspective of his family kitchen table, but also try to interpret their table from my own point of view.
I became friend with Aaron after we attended the same summer program and kept in touch. On July 14th, I called Aaron at five in the afternoon British time, which is the time that he planned to buy groceries after picking up his sister from her piano lesson. It was the first time I saw the inside of a British supermarket through my phone. Despite the fact that everything seems similar to the US, I still noticed two things that are different. when Aaron was buying the cheese for dinner, there were four types of cheese ranked by its level of creaminess. People are able to choose cheese that contains different amount of milk based on their preference. Another special thing about the supermarket is the wide range of honey and jams. Any fruits has its corresponding jam ready for customers to consume. Aaron followed the list that was written by his mom, and fish and potatoes were the main dish for a cheerful Friday night.
As soon as Aaron got home, his mom had already set up the dinning table. It was not as fancy as I thought it would be, but the whole setup was definitely well planned. There were three sets of cutlery on each side with two spoons at the top of the plate. Knifes had different size; the largest one has sawtooth, which is used to cut steak and pork chops; the second knife has a flat cutting blade, which can be used to cut butter or pie; the last knife doesn’t have a sharp edge and it can be used to cut vegetables or fruits. Two spoons can then be used for soup and dessert. Although it is merely a regular family dinner, Aaron’s mother still planned everything carefully. Then she took bags of food and started her preparation and cooking process back in the kitchen.
During the meal, I was shocked by how well behave the little girl was and her skillful way of using fork and knife despite she is only 5 years old. As she grabbed the large shared spoon with her hand, Aaron’s sister scooped some soup and salad to her bowls. This would be completely different if she was raised in a traditional Chinese family. The mom ushers their children to eat more for everything and help the youngest kids at the table to put all the dishes in their plates. This tiny detail shows that British values and develops their children’s independence starting from a young age. Aaron’s dad came back a bit later than usual, but when he first joined us, he started talking about his day at work and ask how is everyone else at the table. Whenever Aaron had some problems for schooling or for work, his dad always listened to him carefully and offered suggestions, because he believed in his son to make the right choice for himself. The warm family conversations reminded me of my family back in China, and how supportive my parents are to all my decisions that I proposed at the kitchen table. Receiving their trust and encouragement was my greatest motivation no matter where I go.
After everybody was done with their food, they put their own plates and silverware back to the sink and Aaron’s dad will be in charge of cleaning up. Through my close observation of his family, I experienced how important it is to have everyone contribute to at least part of the kitchen table preparation process. By doing so, it unites the entire family and helps everyone to recognize their roles with certain responsibilities as a family member. With my careful examination of British kitchen table, I was impressed by how manner-centered my friends’ family is. Without the bonding time over the kitchen table, family members will have less opportunities to communicate about their daily life and find someone who really cares for their future to discuss their problems.
By carefully examine the British table, I finally understand the true meaning of being a polite British gentleman and how society can be shaped to prosperity under the guidance of elite people. The set up of the kitchen table forge the children to follow the rules and become a future law keeper. If the children enter the society, they will know how to behave properly in public to avoid embarrassment. When two strangers is going to have dinner with each other, they will definitely judge the person by how they behave at the kitchen table. Children can also have a place to connect with their families and consult about their daily life problems thoroughly with their relatives. Under this environment, both their mind and body can stay on the road to fulfill their personal values.