Sarah Hampson: There are these unspoken rules about what is immodest to do in public that nobody ever really talks about. When you go out in public, which I did recently to a major city square in Toronto, you see people eating without really being aware of how they look. There are businessmen chatting on their cellphones, standing up scarfing something down. It's telling, how none of the rules about manners seem to apply in public. Over to you, Beppi...
Beppi Crosariol: Sorry, I was just taking a sip of my latte.
S.H.: That was very rude.
B.C.: I think it depends to some extent on the type of food, don't you? Hot dogs, for example, are a great American public food. It was once almost an act of citizenship to order a hot dog at Nathan's on Coney Island or to have one at the ballgame. So I have rules: Hot dogs, yes. Burgers, yes. Spaghetti - sometimes, actually. I used to have a no-spaghetti rule, but now al dente is okay. But if it's overcooked and sloppy, then you could be in trouble.
S.H.: How do you eat it? Out of Tupperware or with a plastic fork?
B.C.: The Tupperware can't be transparent.
S.H.: I'm going to have to buy new Tupperware.
Sue Riedl: You are quite uptight, Beppi. I thought you would be more laissez-faire.
S.H.: Did you have a craving for spaghetti one day and have to change your rule?
B.C.: Well, it actually came down to a book - Spaghetti and Stars. You get the sense leafing through this book - it's all black-and-white photos of famous Italian and American movie stars in the fifties eating spaghetti - that it's all a matter of confidence and look and what you're wearing. If you're Stephen Harper on the campaign hustings, eating spaghetti might be a mistake; but if you're Sophia Loren in a sundress on the shore in Naples, it can look quite fetching.
S.H.: If there are to be street table manners, as it were, there was this lady in [Toronto's]Nathan Phillips Square, sitting nicely in the shade, and she had her legs together and she wasn't bringing her head down or her plate up to her chin, she was actually eating as if she were at a little table. It was very sweet to see that there were some manners, even though she was in public with an imaginary table.
STICKY SITUATIONS S.R.: My problem is napkin disposal. You need to have two hands for the food and then you've got the napkin, and if you're on a bench you kind of put it on the bench and pretend you're going to remember to throw it away, but wonder if the person you're eating with is noticing that you have this dirty napkin next to you. And what do you do with garbage? Do you carry a little bag to throw away your garbage? When you're talking about business meetings, if you're hungry and you don't have time, is it okay to eat if the other person isn't eating?
S.H.: That makes me think about cocktail parties. Sometimes I will not take anything from the hors d'oeuvres tray if the person I'm talking to hasn't taken something. They're going to be watching me chew it and we're standing, and I might drip it.
S.R.: And you don't know if there's something in your teeth. Then you're left with a skewer from those stupid skewer things. That's dangerous - not only dirty, but dangerous.
B.C.: There are people who actually get paid a lot of money to train young, upwardly mobile professionals who are trying to network their way into high-paying jobs, on how to eat at cocktail parties. They have something called the "two-bite rule" - you should never take anything that is going to involve more than two bites - and that rules out most skewers, I think.
S.R.: One bite, I think, is enough.
S.H.: Especially if I'm really dressed up. There's something unattractive about chewing while you're dressed in your finery, unless it's something you can just pop in your mouth.
S.R.: Beppi, you're the greatest foodie in the room - does it rub you the wrong way when people say they don't want to eat because it might make them look bad?
B.C.: It depends on the context. If it's your party, you like to see people eating, so I think it's a generous act to eat at people's parties.
AT THE OPERA S.H.: I think people in public feel that nobody's watching them, when in fact it's the opposite. Once, I was going to the opera, meeting a man that I was just getting to know. He was a Bay Street type in a suit, and he showed up with this big, sloppy piece of pizza that he was stuffing into his mouth as he greeted me. The looks people gave him were unbelievable - this is the opera, we're supposed to be refined, and here he was being sort of gross. I thought that was a faux pas.
B.C.: Well, it depends on the kind of pizza. I'm assuming from what you're saying that it wasn't a crisp pizza bianca, it was probably a quattro formaggio or something like that, pretty sloppy.
But I have no problem with somebody eating before the opera because you're facing four hours of starvation. It's better that than having your stomach grumble during some soprano's resting moment.
I actually bring food into the opera but I make sure the food is very quiet. I don't bring anything in cellophane. But I'll bring in nuts, and put them in my own little plastic bags that don't make noise. I once brought Nibs into the opera, and the moment I opened the bag, this pungent smell of strawberry wafted through the theatre. People actually turned around to look at me. I couldn't tell whether it was because it was bothering them or it was envy.
S.R.: They wanted them.
B.C.: That's opera in Canada. Have you ever been to the opera in other countries? I was in Paris recently facing a six-hour opera - Messiaen's St. Francis of Assisi - and I thought, how am I going to endure this without something to eat? But there they had three 45-minute intermissions, and people head to the snack bars for real food. Opera is more of a popular art form there, whereas here it's been co-opted by the tuxedo class and it's more about starched shirts and social appearances than having a good time.
S.H.: I think the Italians must be eating spaghetti at the opera.
B.C.: I think they used to. When opera was a pop art form, perhaps a century ago, people brought food in, and they wore informal clothing. Who was it - Maria Callas in the fifties, I think - was pelted with radishes. I don't know where people got the radishes if they weren't already eating veggies and dip in the stands. Lord knows food is a major theme in opera, judging by the size of some of the singers.
IN TRANSIT S.H.: What are your other public eating faux pas?
S.R.: Well, when we were speaking about odours and people watching you, it made me think of the TTC. Not that I mind people eating; I eat on the TTC. But once I ventured out with a Tupperware filled with yogurt and a real spoon from home and it felt really weird.
B.C.: That's brave.
S.H.: That is brave.
S.R.: I felt like, this is wrong. I had this cutlery that didn't belong ... but I was hungry, which overrides a lot. But it really smells in the small compartments. It's like that whole debate with perfume: You may like it, but what about when it's infringing on others?
S.H.: Eating on the subway is a real example of loss of ritual. I see that all the time and it strikes me that it's a real loss of that lovely, beautiful ritual of setting a table and sitting down to a meal.
MESSY MEALS B.C.: Don't you find it kind of attractive when a man can actually eat something gracefully in public? Is it always disgusting?
S.H.: No, it's not always and that's a good point. Now I'm picturing dropping eight grapes into his mouth, one after another.
S.R.: When you're eating a beautiful ripe peach, no matter how many napkins you have, you have to lick your fingers. I always feel so embarrassed, but at the same time, that's the joy of the peach.
S.H.: I have to say that when I eat a really ripe peach, even if I'm in my house, I cut it in slices.
S.R.: I think Sarah's a little uptight.
So what's your limit?
S.H.: Corn on the cob. To me it's a nightmare. If somebody says we're having corn and whatever, steak, I think, oh great, butter on my fingers, you have to gnaw at it, you feel like you're attacking it. You should only eat corn on the cob alone - and brush your teeth after.
B.C.: I guess for me it would be soup.
S.H.: You wouldn't eat soup in public?
B.C.: No, I wouldn't eat soup in public.
S.H.: I wouldn't eat spaghetti even if I were in a sundress.
S.R.: When they were talking about changing the regulations in Ontario for what can be sold as street food, the Health Minister was saying, "Goodbye hot dogs, hello salad," and all I could think of was salad? That seems very messy, almost spaghetti-like.
S.H.: So if they open the floodgates for street food, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
S.R.: I think it's a good thing. I think it's exciting and it provides variety.
S.H.: But isn't that a symptom of how rushed our culture is, to have more street food? Isn't street food there to begin with just because we don't have time to take an hour to sit down in a restaurant? It suggests where our culture is headed that we've less time to step outside of the fray.
B.C.: Yes, but doctors these days are recommending eating 42 small meals a day instead of the three square ones of our past, and that implies eating a few dozen of them on the run.
Local options, local ethics
B.C.: I remember being at a Formula One race in Indianapolis a year ago, and the iconic local food there is barbecued turkey legs. But these are mid-Western turkeys - the legs are Flintstone-sized, probably the size of a Buick transmission case ...
S.H.: You're such a guy!
B.C.: And the only size beer you could get in the stands was a one-litre Fosters. So here I was with a litre-sized can of beer in one hand and a turkey drumstick the size of a Buick transmission case in the other, and it was quite an absurd - but fun - experience. Nobody seemed to bat an eye, of course, because every second person was doing it.
S.H.: I think we're seeing that there are good and bad things to the notion of food in the public realm, and examples of what decorum there should or shouldn't be for oneself and for those around us. It's very much a thing of our times. It used to be that eating was something you did behind closed doors, wasn't it?
B.C.: I think we ought to celebrate eating in public.
S.H.: I do think there's a certain vulnerability we exude when we're eating in public and the ketchup is dripping down the side of our chin. There is something very human about it.
S.R.: And it's a bit of an icebreaker, too.
S.H.: Eating allows us to show just how frail we are as human beings - ketchup can drop on your Gucci blouse!
B.C.: And as somebody who tastes wine for a living and has to spit out a lot of wine, I would also recommend that when drinking or eating in public, wear dark clothing.
S.H.: Now I'm hungry.
S.R.: I'm going to go get a hot dog.
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