August 21, 1919 p.9

Table Customs

How Humans Learn to Eat and Drink

The saying goes, eating and drinking sustain the body. From this the cultural historian must assume that the first major concern for humans was to make sure food and drink were readily available. Throughout time travelers and researchers have paid close attention to the manner in which people eat and drink in order to determine their degree of culture and education. Often they were disappointed in their expectations.

Economists, moralists and philanthropists strive against calling something an affectation without first describing what it is, when it began, and when it was no longer necessary to employ it. A Venetian historian denounced the affection of one doge's wife because she ate with a spoon and not with her fingers. He attributed her hasty death to her "unnatural manner of living." In the middle of the 16th century chimneys and earthenware or tin bowls were considered luxuries. Similarly people had a horrible fear of houses made of oak because in the good old days an outer wall of wickerwork satisfied all demands for comfort and contentment. In Scotland abbots and bishops decreed the newly emerging use of spoons punishable and blasphemous luxury because five fingers were sufficient to bring food from the wooden plate to the mouth. Who today would call knives, forks and spoons luxury items which are a breach of good manners? Indeed these tools for nourishment were luxury items until the 15th and 16th centuries. They didn't become the generally accepted signs of civility until the last century. Our children receive a slap when they grab food off their plates with their fingers. However the "classically trained" Greeks, the overly refined Egyptians and Babylonians, the epicures of Rome didn't know about the luxury of knives, forks, spoons, and plates.

India, China, Egypt, and Babylonia may rightfully be considered the oldest lands of culture. They brought us such needed luxury items as gunpower,compasses, glass, printing, paper, weaving and the beginnings of scientific investigation, however eating implements were unknown to them. To this day the Chinese still eat with chopsticks. Names for the various divisions of the natural sciences were introduced in Sanskrit however words for knife, fork, and spoon were never found in this intellectually and culturally rich language. The finely educated Greeks paid attention to every false utterance of their orators and actors. The sophisticated Romans knew about the spit on which meat was cooked over an open fire. They also used pitchforks and oven forks but they knew nothing of the hygienic and useful table fork. Food came cooked until tender and cut into small pieces by carvers, who alone owned cutting utensils. The food was placed on a platter on the ground where it was picked up with the fingers. If one needed a spoon he used a piece of bread fashioned in the kitchen to scoop up the food. The bread was thrown under the table after it served its purpose. Miltiades and Pericles, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Caesar and Augustus ate in this unappetizing manner.

It wasn't until the end of the 15th century that Italians in finer circles here and there started using forks, however emperors and farmers, popes and mendicant orders of monks still ate with their fingers. One Italian, who spent some time in the court of the famous and highly educated Hungarian King Matthias, praised this unusual practice as such a sign of regal worthiness that he no longer soiled his fingers while eating as was custom among his neatly groomed fellow members of court. Indeed, at the end of the 16th century in upper France people satirized the bad habit of eating with a fork, which by then was usual practice in royal courts. In the 17th century the English gave the Italians the derisive nickname "prong pushers" because they ate with forks and it wasn't too long after this that the Spanish started using forks during meals.

In antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and far into the later times people ate small cut pieces of meat with their fingers, for as Klemm maintains, it was only after the end of the 17th century that the table fork was generally used. Charlemagne, Friedrich Barbarossa, Rudolph of Habsburg, minnesingers and archbishops ate like our small children. At first people just used a two-pringed fork. After hundreds of years the three-pronged fork was developed and then later the four-pronged silver fork with shorter prongs of wood, ivory, or metal came into being. The Romans characteristically used a battle fork to repel attackers storming the city walls but they never used a table fork. At their luxurious guest dinners they at least had napkins, which the Greeks did without despite their high culture. Instead they wiped their dirty fingers on bread crumbs which they then threw under the table along with any bones from the meal. Later the servants would clean up the cast off leftovers. In Homer's time each person ate at his own little table under which he later slept. Later the entire group of table guests rested on cushions in nightshirt-type dinner clothing, stretched their feet out from the table, leaned on their left arms with their upper bodies exposed, changing position with the various courses without caring for their clothing if it was soiled by fat and meat droppings.

Specific table customs surely developed with the lack of table implements. When the Greek arrived as a guest he dressed himself very carefully. He bathed and anointed himself and put beautiful soles on his feet. Before he sat down at the table he had the soles removed by a servant, who put them away like we would have our hats and coats set aside. Another slave would bring water for hand and foot washing. So as not to burn their fingers on the hot food, people put finger ring covers on their eating hands. After the meal they washed their hands and perfumed themselves. Then the drinking began whereby pitchers of wine mixed with water were passed around. Then female flute players and girls (companions or courtesans) appeared. There was an abundance of debauchery until the next morning when the flute players and torch bearers accompanied the party goers back to their homes. Heads, chests, and even arms and legs were covered with myrtle, rose, violet, and ivy wreaths. Such were the binges (Symposiums) of the Greeks in which the most distinguished men took part. Socrates had the reputation of being able to drink the most yet remain sober.

The fantastically rich yet crude Romans took on the customs as well as the literature of the Greeks and surrounded themselves with the craziest luxuries since gluttony and senseless waste to the nth degree characterized the highest members of that society. People rested on foot-tall couches of rose petals, dyed sheep purplish red before they were slaughtered, put fish ponds on their roofs and built tower gardens. Gourmands ate the tongues of tamed birds just because they were expensive. They ground up costly pearls and sprinkled the powder in their wine. A glass of wine would cost a hundred thousand talers by the time they were done. At one banquet held by Alexander the Great 41 guests drank themselves to death. Emperor Vitellius was the most renown glutton there ever was. In four weeks he ate and drank 41 million talers worth, seldom leaving the table and not touching any meal costing less than 24,000 talers. Similar gluttony reigned until the end of the Middle Ages but lasted much later in the princely courts of certain drunkards who let the drink flow until all his guests were under the table. Gluttony, crudeness, shameless behavior and ignorance were marked as advantages for the upper classes and persistent drunkenness was considered a virtue. However these documented groups of princes lacked velvet, gilded goods, embroidery and ornamentation on their shirts and handkerchiefs.

Classical antiquity lost its glory and the romantic fantasies of the Middle Ages lost their glow as the high and might ruling class replaced it with the luncheon table. As much as the Greeks accomplished in the fields of art and science, modern life achieved in the field of humanism. Education in our time consists of freeing oneself from animal needs in order to contribute to a better culture. One isn't wrong if one attributes degeneracy to a lack of table implements. When it comes to measuring human values, as long as men eat with their fingers like animals, come to the table half-naked, surround themselves with filth and disorder, it's no surprise that debauchery follows.

Pine (Fir) Trees and Spruces

People Often Mix Them Up

Seventy Percent of what comes to the Berlin Market as "Christmas Trees" are in fact spruces. The proper name for them is "silver fir" and the cut branches often hung up are "double firs." Anyone from Berlin who has ever been in an evergreen forest knows the long needle or Scots pine is a spruce tree. As luck would have it, scarcely 10 percent of people know whether their Christmas trees are pines or spruces.

The pine tree is the true German Christmas tree since its native location is the central German forest. In the central mountains of Germany the pine tree grows wild and under favorable conditions it will develop upon maturity a slender, knot-free surface halfway up its height of thirty to fifty meters. The pine extends out to the east as far as the Vistula but does not go into neighboring Russia. To the west it extends to the mountain ranges past the Rhine but is totally absent in England. It does not go beyond the norther border of Germany and to the south the Alps form a natural barrier. Of course the pine has been cultivated beyond this region although it does not do well in extreme cold and it will freeze in the climate of St. Petersburg. The branch groupings of the pine are uniquely uniform in each section. In their native locations pine branches of multiple trees either press close together or spread far apart. In shady areas the distance between each tree is greater. In sunny areas trees clump closer together. In shady areas the needles are thinner and farther apart than those in full sun or in areas where they are more windswept. Pine needles sprout in two rows to the right and left of the branch almost completely flat at the nexus. Silver fir trees have the characteristic white underside to their needles.

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Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks