Some parents hold their children's good grades as a priority above all others, while others just want their kids to have loads of friends. For some Mums and Dads, good parenting is about reading lots of books, or encouraging a love of football or music. Above anything else, my parents were super keen on good table manners: I was encouraged in maths, taken to music concerts, did endless after-school activities and had lots of fun playing with cousins and neighbours, but, to them, none of that mattered if you couldn't be polite at the dinner table.
Etiquette has continued to interest me since leaving home. I worked at Bettys tea rooms in York during my first two years at University, and took great pride in my duties as a Manager's Assistant, handing out bread rolls, dabbling in silver service, trying my best (though not always succeeding) not to drop tomato chutney in customers' laps. Then there was France, with the wonders of the cheese course and the culture of aperitifs and social nibbling. I sat amongst teachers in the school canteen sipping red wine before 2pm, enjoying a starter, mains and dessert as part of the two-hour lunch break in the middle of the day, designed specifically for the purpose of eating, talking and drinking, all for pleasure. In France I learned about the daintiness of artichoke tips, homemade mayonnaise, and the importance of napkins. I gulped it up, lived and breathed this celebration of etiquette, and tried my best to bring some of it back to the UK with me when I returned.
My standards of social worth are built around the attribute of gastronomical good behaviour: it doesn't matter how intelligent, kind, funny or interesting you are, if you can't behave reasonably while eating, well, then I don't want to eat with you. That's that. There is nothing more likely to repulse me than sitting near someone who is talking with a mouth full of food, holding their fork like a shovel or slouching over their plate as if they can't bear to be there. And there is nothing more insulting than to serve a meal to a guest to have them push it around their plate, dip it in some sort of bottled condiment, or leave their knife and fork askew over the plate upon finishing.
So far there has been only one caveat to this standard implanted in me since birth. While reporting back to my Mum about my first date with Daniel, imagine her horror when I summarised the evening with the phrase "well I must have liked him; he had the most awful table manners and it didn't even bother me!". Luckily, with patience and stern criticism, most of the problems I noted that evening have now been fixed.
I would look forward to rice bowl every week, for its ease, for its sheer quantity of goodness, and for the debauched manner in which I would allow myself to eat it. I even named the dish after its slovenly characteristics, such was the pleasure of this fact. Rice bowl has made its way into our current lifestyle, albeit a rare treat when we need a cheap and easy meal. We always eat it in bowls, never using a knife, and always in pyjamas. Until recently it was a one-off meal in our repertoire, a bit like homemade pizza in the way that our eyes would twinkle suggestively whenever one of us would propose eating it that week. But then I bought a slowcooker. Everything has unravelled alarmingly quickly: now everything is in bowls, a sludgy heap of chopped leftover vegetables mixed with spices and a tin of pulses. We slurp the stewy goodness up like fiends, swapping the lone fork for a spoon halfway through the meal so that the juice isn't left to the end as an afterthought. Our evening meals are getting later and later, increasingly often we eat in pyjamas, ladling out the random concoctions with sheer greed (yesterday I had three full bowls of broccoli and potato slop, I just couldn't hold back).
I can feel myself coming undone, forgetting everything I ever knew as I give way - part in pleasure, part in time-saving necessity - to this new device in my kitchen. Cooking is no longer cooking, but more like bleary-eyed chopping in the early morning and throwing it all haplessly into the black pot of wonder. I am giving way to the lure of convenience, and my love for all things etiquette is sliding swiftly down with it. Watch this space: my University Challenge scores might well be hampered as I manoeuvre myself off the couch to get some ketchup, or as I wipe my chin on the sleeve of my dressing gown.