The Rituals of Dinner

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Canadian author Visser employs a rambling, anecdotal style to present and support her main premise—that humankind, from the primeval to the present, has devised innumerable mealtime rituals as a response to the ancient, subconscious threat of being attacked by one’s peers during times of communal meal-taking. She supports this theme with details garnered from a wide range of references and disciplines, creating an amalgam of anthropological theory, historical fact, mythological interpretation, and cultural and literary analysis.

While there is clearly an Anglo-European focus to this material, a sincere effort has been made to incorporate myriad anecdotes and details from a world-wide variety of peoples. Visser admits that little attempt has been made to organize the material by culture, geography, or chronological pattern; instead, she has “elected to ’travel,’ both in space and time—to choose examples of behaviour . . . where they throw light . . . upon our own attitudes.” The author is at her best when divulging mealtime idiosyncrasies that have been fastidiously passed along into the twentieth century. Most readers will identify with the perils associated with the learning of proper table manners and mealtime behavior, and will be amused at how many of these “rituals” cut across cultural and temporal lines.

Anyone who has ever pondered the origins of the knife and fork, or experienced the childhood admonishment to “chew with your mouth shut!” will appreciate Visser’s enlightening efforts.