Heaven and hell

Celebrate the return of normal life, but choose your guests with care

Eating In

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Whatever you do,” I advised, “don’t invite Jesus.” My colleague, Ernie, who thinks imagination is a tool of historical research, was planning a last fantasy dinner-party before Covid yields to normal social life. Religious leaders filled his wish-list of guests. He had already lined up Confucius, Buddha and Guru Nanak, perhaps to ensure uncontentious table-talk. Christ, I insisted, would be a terrible addition.

At the first dinner-party He attended, He upstaged the bridegroom by producing superior wine

He could be generous as a host, though the amount of leftovers after He fed the five thousand suggests poor portion control. Bread of Life, with Living Water and Precious Blood, is an insuperable menu. St John, moreover, made the catch-fresh fish Jesus barbecued for the disciples after the Resurrection sound appetising.

Christ is, in short, the Host from heaven, but in His lifetime on earth He was the guest from hell. At the first dinner-party He attended, He upstaged the bridegroom by producing superior wine. In the house of one leading Pharisee He criticized His host’s choice of guests; in another He complained about dirty crockery.

He upbraided Simon the Pharisee for the inadequacy of the entertainment. He showed shamefully little appreciation for Martha’s hard work in the kitchen. “Don’t have Him at your table,” I pleaded with Ernie. “His manners were abominable.”

Table manners change, like the rest of culture, with time and place. Will they be different, when dinner-parties resume? In England conversation at table is usually dull, because the culture decrees that it is impolite to disagree on serious matters, whereas Spain, as my xenophobically English wife says, is “a land where people argue about abortion over the suckling pig or baby lamb”.

I’m afraid that longing for harmony, combined with an urge to repudiate continental influence, may render post-Covid, post-Brexit, English behaviour more insular than ever. On the other hand, long deprivation might make social gatherings more valued and therefore more decorous.

I hope a restored sense of occasion will inspire guests to take trouble over their dress, and observe such traditional protocols as serving others before helping oneself, deferring to riper years and gentler sex, and circulating the wine clockwise.

I hope against hope for the return of formality: to see shirt-fronts and napery vie for splendor, and jewellery and cutlery for sparkle. Inadvertence in replying to invitations or writing letters of thanks should always have been unpardonable.

In Indiana, where I spend much of my time, my wife despairs of guests who casually show up after failing to reply to invitations, or arrive early or late, or not at all, on flimsy pretexts, like the guest in the gospel (“I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out. Please accept my apologies”).

Others expect dishes to suit religious scruples, alleged allergies, dietary fads or capricious preferences. Guests, if they accept an invitation, should eat what they are given. Your God will forgive you for infringing dietary taboos out of kindness to your hosts and fellow diners.

Allergies, if not mere indulgence, should be the subject of apologetic communications in advance. A colleague of mine once turned up an hour late with his uninvited daughter, who declared herself a lactose-intolerant vegan. Now that resumed dinner-parties have novelty value, they may be exempt from such flakey, thoughtless mistreatment. As we retrieve them from before the Covid era we may, with luck, recover some old-fashioned manners, too.

The essence of good manners is putting others before oneself

Christ may not have been the perfect invitee, but His advice to others was perfect. “When you are a guest, make your way to the lowest place and sit there” — the essence of good manners is putting others before oneself. If guests behave accordingly, harassed hostesses, who have no staff, can rely on diners to serve each other and pass everything, except the chief constituent of the main dish, from hand to hand.

Excess is ill-mannered and champagne goes with everything: limiting the number of wines is a rational method for controlling the proliferation of tabletop glassware. Other permissible ways of coping, in a well-mannered world, include serving the first course as canapés with the drinks before the party sits down, and eliminating the puerile custom — common in the anglophone world in recent years — of offering more than one pudding.

Ernie responds. “Your dreams,“ he sneers, “of re-emergent etiquette are as unrealistic as my fantasy guest-lists. If I can’t have Christ on my list, what about Ayatollah Khomeini, Aleister Crowley and William Booth?”

“Great idea,” I agree. “Butcher a pig’s cheek, and serve with sauce diable, to the sound of trumpets.”

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