Time was when one of the ladylike accomplishments was disjointing a beast upon a platter. Hostesses, as much as hosts, were expected to possess the skill of carving meat, so as to be able to offer sustenance to their guests from their very own hands.
Later, for reasons that are mysterious to Miss Manners, it came to be considered manly to dismember flesh. The proper hostess then took to tea, priding herself on the special way she concocted the brew that she handed around.
The ingredients were tamer, if not tepid, but the idea was the same. These were not practical divisions of chores. There could be vast numbers of competent servants standing by, prepared to whisk away whatever flew off the host's knife or race in with hot water for a hostess who might be innocent of the process by which it is possible to turn cold water into hot.
The idea was to stage a demonstration that hospitality involves making a personal effort on behalf of others. There are just enough variables in these procedures -- light meat or dark, strong tea or weak, lemon or milk -- to indicate attentiveness to individual preferences. The symbolism of these rites speak to the second most important function of nourishment, right after filling the tummy: peaceful and generous sharing.
There is also a long tradition of guests helping one another.
In earlier and less fastidious times, dinner partners ate from the same helpings of food and drank from the same cups. Well into the 19th century, food platters covered the fashionable dinner table as well as the homely one, and guests were expected to be solicitous of those who sat near them.
Although mealtime itself is now disjointed, and hands-on food has become more of a problem than a metaphor, some of the historic tradition has managed to survive. At our holiday meals, some leftovers from these traditions appear at the table.
Such meals are among the few occasions that meat is carved by the table. In many cases, a gender distinction remains with the host carving the meat while saying to the hostess, "I could carve this perfectly well if you gave me a sharp knife."
An abundance of filled platters covers the table. This inspires the diners to make revolting noises and remarks indicating the likely results of their being tempted to overindulge.
The effort that has gone into preparation is recognized:
"Why do you insist on knocking yourself out making everything from scratch? Just get carry-out. Nobody'll ever know the difference."
Individual preferences are acknowledged:
"Do you know what that would do to my cholesterol?"
"Yuck, I hate that."
"Of course it counts as meat. Anyway, now I don't eat poultry or fish, either."
"No, this has some stuffing clinging to it. I can only have protein."
"Could you have made one thing, just one thing, that doesn't have a million calories in it?"
"I knew there wouldn't be anything here I can eat, so I brought my own."
And in the spirit of the occasion, everyone tries to look after the others at the table:
"No fair, you had the drumstick last year."
"You know you're not supposed to eat that."
"You don't need that dessert."
"I'm finished, so why can't I leave the table? Why do I have to keep sitting here?"
Dear Miss Manners:
My family and I recently spent a few days at a beach hotel that offered its guests a "free continental breakfast." Lovely idea, of which we did partake on our last morning.
Something I observed made me wonder if there was a change in the Canons of Etiquette that made it acceptable for some hotel guests to wear their pajamas to the dining area to pick up their breakfast.
Only if they wear their bathrobes over them and pretend that they are wearing bathing suits underneath because they are on their way to the beach.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com, or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c)2002, Judith Martin