"To absorb culture is to open yourself up to possibility, to provide richness. To not be bound by rules and fixate on your outward impression of appearing cultured."
Written by Mei Fujita
A memorable novel that comes to mind when I think about table manners is Osamu Dazai’s "The Setting Sun" which depicts the post-war social system and the transition of traditional Japan, into a more industrial society.
In this passage it observes an interesting perspective about table manners and the way a Mother eats:
“Mother’s way of eating, not only soup but everything else, is quite a thing apart from normal table manners. When the meat appears she at once cuts it up into little pieces with her knife and fork, then transfers the fork to her right hand and happily skewers one piece after another. Again, while we are struggling to free the meat from a chicken bone without rattling the plate, Mother unconcernedly picks up the bone in her fingers and chews the meat off. Even such uncivilized actions seem not only charming but strangely erotic when Mother performs them. The real things are apt to be deviant."
The Mother's actions viewed through a traditional lens could be unpleasant to read. While seemingly "unmannered", her actions maintain a sort of underlying care and endearment. Her conventional table manners may seem to be secondary to her, something you might otherwise expect to be different from the elder within a traditional family.
It's often misunderstood that "good table manners" and "being cultured" are perfectly synonymous. We sometimes focus on things like, how perfectly a soup spoon is carried to your mouth or whether a napkin is used correctly. These actions, in being so critically observed can become masks and obscure the true underlying stories; the root culture; the story of why we do things the way we do them, and instead, we scrutinize how perfectly they are executed, because this, surely, must be how culture is expressed.
However, if one cannot recognize the meaning and beauty beneath, then one is partaking only to create a respectable appearance, displayed politeness at a meal, so caught up in the precision of a utensil placement that it becomes a barrier to culture.
Looking up “being cultured” in a dictionary means "to provide richness of the mind that is nurtured with proper manners." One thing that can be said that is common for people with a cultured outlook is that they typically seek, enjoy and are immersed at the moment they are in. They are absorbing, taking it all in.
It's the same for any mealtime. Take in and taste the dish in front of you as how you want to. To absorb culture is to open yourself up to possibility, to provide richness. To not be bound by rules and fixate on your outward impression of appearing cultured.
This is why Dazai's "Mother's meal" scene is liberating, especially referenced from a more traditional time, she dismisses table manners and you feel as a reader that she values her mealtime in her own definition of it, in adding to it her own richness and culture.
Live happily and eat deliciously without being bound so tightly by rules. If manners are the rules, and if manners are courteous, enjoying meals should be the minimum courtesy to respect the food you eat.
So, enjoy the meal in front of you, as it is, and as you are. Culture is bred when you are open.