Table-Talk by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

Now that the world is so full of free dinners for the well-fed, it behoves hostesses to reconsider their methods. With so many dinner-tables open to the lion, or even to the cub, they must do their spiriting dexterously if they would feed him. In these days when seven hostesses pluck hold of the swallow-tails of one man, and the form of grace before meals must be, “For those we are about to receive, Lord make us truly thankful,” something more than the average attraction is needed to induce the noble animal to dine at your expense. There is one improvement in the great dinner function for which I would respectfully solicit the attention of ladies who entertain but do not amuse. “It is a great point in a gallery how you hang your pictures,” says the sage of Concord, “and not less in society how you seat your party. When a man meets his accurate mate, Society begins and life is delicious.” Yes, but how rarely does a man meet his accurate mate in these minor marriages of the dinner-table! How often is he chained for hours to an unsympathetic soul he has not even made the mistake of selecting. The terrible length of the modern dinner makes the grievance very real, and in a society already vibrant with the demand for easier divorce it is curious that there has arisen no Sarah Grand of the dining-room to protest against this diurnal evil. Suppose that at a dance you were told off to one perpetual partner, who would ever don pumps? Is it not obvious that at a dinner you should have the same privilege as at a dance–the privilege of choosing your partner for each course? It could be done during the drawing-room wait. I give an example of an ordinary menu, marked after the fashion of a gentleman’s dance programme, from which it will the seen at a glance how much more delightful a dinner would become if you could change your partner as often as your plate.

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MENU, JUNE 15th, 1894.

Plats. Engagements.
1. Hors d’oeuvres . . . . S. S.
2. Soup . . . . . . . . . A. P. S.
3. Poisson . . . . . . . Pinky.
4. Poisson . . . . . . . L. R.
5. Entree . . . . . . . . Blue Bow.
6. Entree . . . . . . . . Red Hair.
7. Joint . . . . . . . . W.
8. Sweet . . . . . . . . Minnie.
9. Sweet . . . . . . . . Minnie.
10. Cheese . . . . . . . Long Arms.
11. Dessert . . . . . . . I. V.

(Interval before ladies rise.)

Extra Entree . . . . . . Agnes.
Extra Joint . . . . . . . Eyeglasses.
Extra Sweet . . . . . . . Minnie.

You perceive at once that you would always put your idol pro tem, down for the sweets, which would become as fertile a source of flirtation as “love” in tennis. Of course the same tact and discretion would be needed in filling your menu as in filling your programme. Some ladies who are excellent at the entree may be inadvisable for the joint, which they may sit out, expecting to monopolise your attention to the detriment of your meal. Others who are dull at the soup may be agreeably vivacious towards the later items. A new series of formulae would be added to the language:

“May I have the pleasure of seeing your menu?”

“Will you give me one sweet?”

“Can you spare me the joint?”

“I am so sorry: I have just given it away.”

“See me eat the poisson, as Grossmith says.”

“Will you put me down for a fish?”

“This is our entree, I think.”

“May I have my dessert, Minnie?”

“Are you engaged for the cheese?”

“Yes; but you can have the second entree.”

“Don’t forget to keep the soup for me!”

“If you don’t mind sitting it out!”

“Are you open for the extra joint?”

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“Thank you: I am full up.”

For hostesses who shrink from such a revolution, a beginning might be made by an automatic change of seats by the gentlemen, say one to the right as in the chasse-croise of the Caledonians. Failing this, the only remaining method of avoiding monotony and the chilling separation of the extremes of the board is to follow the example of King Arthur and employ a round table. The round dinner-table is the only way of making both ends meet.

Having got your round table, what are you to eat upon it? There is hardly any edible known to the menu which some sect or other would not banish from the kitchen, while if you were to follow the “Lancet” you would eat nothing at all, starving like Tantalus amid a wealth of provisions. Of these sects of the stomach I was aware of many. But it is only recently that the claims of “natural food” have been brought within my heathen ken. The apostle of the new creed is an American lady doctor, whose gospel, however, is somewhat vitiated by her championship of Mrs. Maybrick, so that one cannot resist the temptation of suspecting that she thinks the jury would never have found that interesting lady guilty if they had fed upon starchless food. For this is the creed of the new teaching. All starch foods are chiefly digested in the intestines instead of in the main stomach, and hence are unnatural and morbiferous, and the chief cause of the nervous prostration and broken-down health that abound on all sides. (Herr Nordau gives quite a different explanation of the general breakdown, but no matter.) “The ‘Natural Food Society,’” says its official organ, “is founded in the belief that the food of primeval man consisted of fruit and nuts of sub-tropical climes, spontaneously produced; that on these foods man was, and may again become, at least as free from disease as the animals are in a state of nature.” How curiously apposite seem Dryden’s lines, written in a very different connection!

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This was the fruit the private spirit brought,
Occasioned by great zeal and little thought.
While crowds unlearned, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buzz and swarm.

And this couplet of his, too, might be commended to the devotees:

A thousand daily sects rise up and die;
A thousand more the perished race supply.

What does it matter what primeval man ate? It is not even certain that he was a member of the Natural Food Society. The savage, as we know him, lives on the game he hunts and shoots, and prefers his fellow-man to vegetarianism. No one ever accused the red Indian of nervous prostration, “when wild in woods the noble savage ran”; nor are leopards and tigers usually in broken-down health. But, in justice to the Natural Food Society, I must admit that it displays a pleasant absence of fanaticism, for there is a proviso in italics: “All persons about to experiment with the non-starch food system are urged at first not to use nuts, but to use instead whatever animal food they have been accustomed to.” The central feature of the system is abstention from bread, cereals, pulses, and starchy vegetables, for which food fruits are to be substituted. All this seems a mighty poor excuse for the formation of a new sect. Fortunately the Society uses up its superfluous energies “in working for the higher life,” and in its coupling of health and holiness is sound in its psychology, whatever it may be in its physiology.

You never heard of Peterkin’s pudding, by the way, but there is a fine moral baked in it. Johannes came to his wife one day and said, “Liebes Gretchen, could you not make me a pudding such as Peterkin is always boasting his wife makes him? I am dying of envy to taste it. Every time he talks of it my chops water.” “It is not impossible I could make you one,” said Gretchen good-naturedly; “I will go and ask Frau Peterkin how she makes it.” When Johannes returned that evening from the workshop, where Peterkin had been raving more than ever over his wife’s pudding, Gretchen said gleefully, “I have been to Frau Peterkin: she has a good heart, and she gave me the whole recipe for Peterkin’s pudding.” Johannes rubbed his hands, and his mouth watered already in anticipation. “It is made with raisins,” began Gretchen. Johannes’s jaw fell. “We can scarcely afford raisins,” he interrupted: “couldn’t you manage without raisins?” “Oh, I dare say,” said Gretchen, doubtfully. “There is also candied lemon-peel.” Johannes whistled. “Ach, we can’t run to that,” he said. “No, indeed,” assented Gretchen; “but we must have suet and yeast.” “I don’t see the necessity,” quoth Johannes. “A good cook like you”–here he gave her a sounding kiss–“can get along without such trifles as those.” “Well, I will try,” said the good Gretchen, as cheerfully as she could; and so next morning Johannes went to work light-hearted and gay. When he returned home, lo! the long-desired dainty stood on the supper-table, beautifully brown. He ran to embrace his wife in gratitude and joy; then he tremblingly broke off a hunch of pudding and took a huge bite. His wife, anxiously watching his face, saw it assume a look of perplexity, followed by one of disgust. Johannes gave a great snort of contempt. “Lieber Gott!” he cried, “and this is what Peterkin is always bragging about!”

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