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Keeping clean whilst eating

"The centuries-old history of the napkin has unfurled from a basic tool to an ornamental accessory." This is Mold


Yesterday was a book group day - a morning affair which is followed by lunch provided by that month's hostess. Yesterday sitting next to our plates, were these rather beautiful paper napkins, sitting on a tablecloth of the colour green in the picture. So OK it was possibly a bit precious, but our hostess is elegant and artistic and it gave us all great pleasure. I gather COVID saw an uptake in the sale of such things, as we tried to make our home confinement more joyful and more beautiful.


So today I thought I would look at table napkins - an excursion into history, etiquette, invention and all manner of social issues. Let's begin with history.


The first napkin' was a lump of dough, provided in Ancient Greece by the Spartans to guests, so that they could wipe their fingers on it as they ate. It was called an 'apomagdalie'. A useless piece of information I suppose, which makes me wonder about what people did before that. Were they really the first people to realise that some people didn't want to be covered in grease and juice every time they ate. After all everyone ate with their fingers back then and had been since man began to eat cooked food - well any food really. Which makes me wonder what those people who eat with their fingers in various countries around the world do? Finger bowls filled with scented water perhaps?


Possibly, and I did try to find out, but couldn't easily find a succinct answer. Lots of information about the etiquette of how to do it, but usually nothing about what to do when you have finished. Eventually I did find this from a website called Our Delhi Struggle, in which the writer takes you through eating a meal in India with your fingers without making a mess and what to do when you finish:


"Why so few napkins? Supply and demand. Indian diners are given fewer napkins because they require fewer napkins. First of all, they’ve learned to get the food in their mouth, not on it. More importantly, they scrub their hands like surgeons before and after every meal. And during the meal, they just hold their hands in front of them to protect their clothes. Nobody worries about messy fingers during mealtime—when you’re done, you just go wash." Our Delhi Struggle


Then I did find that some restaurants do indeed provide those finger bowls.


Back to history. The Romans provided small cloths - two kinds - a sudarium which was used to wipe your face and fingers, and a mappa which was larger and used as a cover for those meals at which they reclines.


"Made of fine silks and linens with embroideries of gold and weaves of color, were brought by each guest to the hosts table, for which leftovers were placed in for the journey home." What's Cooking America


Over on the other side of the world in China where they had invented paper they had "napkins folded into squares were used inside of baskets that held tea cups." Which is what I often had to do when I was younger and spilt my coffee into the saucer - place a napkin - or a tissue underneath to prevent all the liquid dripping over my clothes next time I took a sip. As I have said before I am probably the world's messiest eater.


The word napkin was first used in the Middle Ages in Britain - based on the French word 'nappe' which meant a cloth + kin which one source said was a diminutive and another which said it was family. Maybe both are right. The Medieval people, however, were not that polite and tended to wipe those greasy hands on just about anything to hand - their clothes mostly. Although there is a rather nice apocryphal tale of Leonardo described by Maggie Tate on the Heart of the Home website.


"The origin of cloth napkins may have been inspired by a story about Leonardo DaVinci. The story says DaVinci was aware that the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, was in the habit of tying with ribbon live rabbits to guests chairs. When DaVinci was invited to a party, he showed his disapproval by bringing pieces of cloth and handing those out to fellow party-goers, telling them to use the cloths instead of the rabbits. The source of this story is questionable, coming from a 1987 book published on April Fools Day (Leonardo's Kitchen Notebooks (1987), by Jonathan Routh and Shelagh Routh) but sure makes DaVinci look good!" Maggie Tate/Heart of the Home


It actually seems that in Renaissance times, rather than wiping your hands on your clothes or your beard, you wiped them on the tablecloth.


Then came the fork and eating food became a slightly less messy affair and then:


"at some point napkins became a symbol of status –– a medium to be contorted into sculpture, a mark of the host’s wealth, preparation and thoughtfulness towards the meal. " This is Mold


Which is still true today when paper napkins abound. A classy restaurant will provide linen napkins, whisked from the table in front of you by your waiter or waitress, folded in half and placed across your knees. I even found this little piece of etiquette - yes there still is such a thing:


  • Upon sitting at the table unfold your napkin and place folded in half on your lap

  • Use the napkin to blot carefully your lips and before you take a drink

  • During a meal if you leave place the napkin on your chair

  • Do not tuck in your collar

  • Do not wipe your face, teeth or nose with your napkin" Mimi's Manners


Eventually those cloth napkins became ever more decorative and were folded into ever more complicated shapes, but also in lesser establishments, if napkins were provided they might have been dirty and previously used by others.


Enter the paper napkin. I think I saw somewhere that the Japanese had a hand in this, but officially it seems the date for invention seems to be 1887 in America where they were first thought of as souvenirs. Soon, however they became popular because of their disposable nature and because this was rather more hygienic than an unwashed linen napkin. And pretty soon it became apparent that you could advertise stuff on them - today, all manner of fast food comes with a paper napkin with a logo on it. KFC was apparently one of the first to do this.


However they weren't really socially approved until the late 40s, early 50s and since then they have become ubiquitous. So much so that today we worry about the environmental issues associated with them. Theoretically they can be recycled, and indeed, many of them are themselves made of recycled paper - you can recycle paper around 5 times it seems. However, if they are contaminated - i.e. covered in food remains, from spots of grease, to actual food, then they cannot be recycled which causes problems at recycling plants. There are some today which are bio-degradable but even these will not degrade well if contaminated with food. Apparently the young have given up on paper napkins and use paper towels instead, which I guess is cheaper, but has the same ultimate disposal problems.


Or you can be a genius and write something on the back of it which will get you a Nobel prize:


"physicist Paul Lauterbur claimed to have drafted his design for the MRI scanner on napkins at a Pittsburgh hamburger joint in 1971. Three decades later, his work won him a Nobel prize." Tim Walker/The Guardian


Although you might need a better quality one to do it on, and definitely not one with beautiful parrots all over it:


"Writing anything on the back of a napkin sounds impractical – they’re tricky to write on without tearing, and which side is the back? – but some of the biggest ideas in business, science, politics and showbiz began as doodles on the damp rag from underneath a cocktail glass." Tim Walker/The Guardian


It's becoming a bit of an ethical dilemma isn't it? Will we return to cloth napkins and/or finger bowls, or just have to get up and wash your hands after a meal - particularly if it's a hamburger. Now they cannot be eaten without a stack of napkins, and a large bib to cover your clothes.


The pretty ones are still good for lifting an ordinary meal into a little bit of joy though.


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