There’s an etiquette to dining, which means there are values that lead to expectations. Does this culture value savagery and baseness (like lust and gluttony) or rising above animalistic instincts to one degree or another? This leads to a general level of hearty gusto, decorum and refinement, or something in between. It impacts everything from how people are called to a meal, how it’s presented and consumed, and what happens when it’s over. To keep things simple, we can decide that there are three defaults: hearty, refined, or moderate. Subtle variations on them become what we tweak for each culture we invent.
To be stereotypical, the hearty choice might best suit barbarians, nomadic peoples, and those whose civilization is in its early stages. Meals might be had at any time, while standing around or right after an animal is killed. No one washes up beforehand and they show up smelling however they smell, wearing whatever’s already on them, likely dirty. Perhaps there’s no table or silverware, and if people gather at all, they stand or sit on the ground or maybe a pelt. To call others to a meal, they might simply holler once and leave it at that; if you don’t show up, that’s your problem. Or they expect you to notice and come over. Food is eaten with hands. Dirty fingers and mouths are wiped on sleeves, if anything. Belching might be common, and loud songs, stories, and ale flow. Anyone who needs to step away just goes, possibly losing their spot if they’ve even got one. To relieve themselves, maybe people don’t go far, doing it in sight. Those who want more of something just take it. Perhaps they eat too much, don’t share, and if there’s no such thing as leaving some for someone else. When it’s all done, no one cleans up other than to lick something clean or throw a bone elsewhere, like to dogs, who might be allowed to help themselves during the meal. This is a social event but mostly about eating.
Contrast all of this with the refined approach, again going for an extreme. Meals are likely had at a specific time that, if subtly changing from day to day, is still told to people in advance, usually politely; a guest might be asked to spread the word to others, and the meal doesn’t start until everyone is seated and perhaps a prayer is spoken; there’s no nibbling allowed before this. Hosts might also provide choices, such as stating that steak is the main dish and asking if corn or peas is preferred by the guest. The food is presented well, like a piece of art, with sauce dribbled over it and a sprig of parsley to one side. Everyone washes their hands beforehand and wears relatively clean clothes and is washed enough to prevent poor scents and appearance. Ornate silverware, china, and crystal goblets may adorn a beautiful table with napkins and possibly an elegant tablecloth, candles or soft lights bathing everyone. Food is not only eaten with utensils, but multiple forks, for example, are designed for use on specific dishes. Whether servants are present or not, food and drink are politely passed and/or served for dedicated bowls/trays and utensils no one’s eating with. Even an unheard belch results in someone saying “excuse me,” and permission is asked to leave a table for any reason, including the bathroom. Those who want more ask for it or go without if eating too much is considered gluttony, or perhaps they wait to be offered (and must accept?). No one ever takes the last of anything. When it’s done, everyone concludes at the same time and departs together, helping (or letting servants) clean up and restoring order, pushing chairs back in, wiping mouths a final time and cleaning the hands, too. This is a social event where eating is almost secondary.
In between these extremes are what we’d typically see and experience today in modern cultures. This means a roughly expected mealtime, casually announced. People are expected to wash up but often don’t, and only blatantly dirty clothes get a reaction. There’s one fork and knife per person; you get anything else you want/need yourself and come back. People serve themselves from plain dishes with either a serving spoon or something of theirs that hasn’t been in their mouth (think knife, shoving stuff out of a tilted bowl or plate). Someone eats the last of something without much regard for anyone else wanting it. People leave when they need, without permission, and often only the adults who live there clean up anything. It’s informal, satisfies a bodily need, and may not be particularly social.
These three basic scenarios can be altered, with more or fewer acts of refinement added/subtracted. In theory, a younger society might be rowdier while an older one could be more refined. Standards of cleanliness (which education influences) will impact the move away from the first example. There’s more judgment in the refined scenario, where minor offense can be given for something as trivial as using the wrong spoon for soup.
Here are some additional questions to consider:
- Can people invite themselves or others to dine? Are impromptu guests accepted?
- Is there expected attire and what might it be?
- Who sits first?
- Are seats assigned an order or not, and how if so (rank)?
- Are some tables reserved?
- Does anyone enter or do something after everyone else is present or seated?
- Who gets served first and last? Is that based on gender, seniority, or do guests or the hosts receive the privilege?
- Are extra portions viewed well or poorly? Is it considered rude or wasteful to not finish what you’ve taken? Is it bad to not eat much as if disapproving of the fare?
- Is it permissible or forbidden to brings weapons to the table?
We must still consider how many meals are common in a day, when they’re consumed, and perhaps what types of foods are associated with each. There are often traditional items. What comes to mind for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Few world builders have the time to invent an array of meals or even occasion to show them in our work, so we likely want to be generic. For example, in looking at the food groups, are certain ones associated with one of these meals? Fruits might be consumed primarily for breakfast, snacks, or as a side dish, as often happens in the United States. But perhaps a fruit or veggie salad is a common lunch item instead. Fish might be eaten later in the day after it’s been caught, but then fisherman are often out early and maybe it’s ready by breakfast, though that means fishing closer to shore. In fantasy worlds, there’s no refrigeration and we can use this to decide what is often in a meal.
In the United States, the early bird special means eating a few hours before most people, at restaurants. This originates from the expression that “the early bird gets the worm” because rain causes worms to be on the surface and the first bird gets plenty of options. We can do this or reverse it, meaning most people eat early and restaurants are eager to lure people in later, after the rush. Here we might use the expression ‘second mouse special’, referring to an idiom “the second mouse gets the cheese” meaning a mousetrap kills the first mouse and, having been sprung, poses no danger to the second, who eats their fill.
A big family dinner (or other meal) where everyone sits down at the same table is a part of certain cultures, but in others, people might eat while on the go or standing in the kitchen after making the meal. The latter is often caused by necessity. If family togetherness is a value, however, eating together is likely as well. Dinner is usually the most important meal for this, with the day’s events complete, but in our fictional world, it could be lunch followed by a siesta. Or breakfast with well-wishing for the day’s events. Find a rationale to justify which meal is for family gatherings, while another, like lunch, may be with coworkers or friends. A character from a culture without this may place no value on the experience and not understand it; this can help create a culture clash.
There are cultural aspects to guests. If someone happens to be present near a mealtime, it’s often courtesy to invite them, but perhaps our culture suggests politely showing them the door because this is a family occasion. We can spin these things. The guest might be expecting to leave and be embarrassed that they haven’t already. Perhaps when they smell the food cooking, they become uncomfortable and begin to excuse themselves. But it could be reversed, where the smell has them assuming they’ll be invited as in their culture, but it’s not what happens, leading to offense. Perhaps a guest is expected to invite themselves or even help themselves to any food and drink in our house. Or a host is supposed to offer, the guest declines once, the host offers again, and only then does the guest accept. Doing so sooner might be considered hasty or greedy. Remember that culture has a lot to do with expectations, whether those are met or not.