Manners: Bon appétit?

In the Netherlands, there is a rule to starting a meal: you’re supposed to sit quietly at the table, napkin in your lap (don’t let it linger on your plate!) and enjoy a nice conversation until everybody has been served. When everybody has food on his or her plate, you’re supposed to say ‘smakelijk eten‘ (bon appétit in Dutch) and only then are you allowed to pick up your cutlery and start your meal.
Last week, Emilie wrote about an article in the NY-times regarding French Etiquette, and in his last ‘lesson’ the journalist points out that saying ‘bon appétit’ at the start of a meal is really not done in France.
Now I wonder. Why does this French saying exist at all if you’re not supposed to proclaim it? Does it only exist to give the English a feeling of chic when they start their meal?
Also: How do the French know when to start eating? I mean, when the queen is at the table one would obviously wait for her to pick up her cutlery, but this is not really a regular event, is it? – at least not in my family (we’ve never had her at our table, to be honest).
So how do you know when you can start? Is there a (secret) sign I’m not aware of? Or do you just start eating the moment you’re served, like I noticed sometimes in the US, regardless if others have food on their plate?

Sometimes international etiquette really confuses me!

xxx Esther


Comments (9)

April 6, 2008

An absolute pet-peeves of mine is when people begin eating immediately when you sit food down in front of them! As I often serve multi-coursed meals & host dinner parties, my feeling is that guests shouldn’t eat until the hostess has served everyone, and sits down herself. My husband always waits for me to explain what I am serving and then for me to take the first bite before he & the other guests dig in! This isn’t a particular American trait, but one he’s always honored in our marriage.

Usually common courtesy dictates this behavior, however we recently had some good friends visiting from German speaking Switzerland. And though I know MENTALLY that in German culture you are “to eat while the food is hot”, EMOTIONALLY I found myself growing more and more annoyed when with each course our guests plowed through their plate before I even sat down! It felt so incredibly rude & disrespectful to me as the cook! And I felt as if were being treated more like a waitress than a chef!

My husband was so annoyed by his friends behavior that he suggested next time they visit, we not cook for them. Next time, we’ll “eat out” instead so that “a cultural misunderstanding” doesn’t affect our friendship! I know our friends would be horrified if they realized how we felt… so better next time, to eliminate the problem by moving “the situation” outside the home so we don’t take this “cultural misunderstanding” personally!!

The Antiques Diva (TM)

April 6, 2008

Ohhh this was a HUGE rule in my family. Never, EVER take a bit until the chef (my mom) sits down and takes her first bite. I don’t know if this was an American rule, or if it has just been a rule in my mom’s family, but this was definitely a big rule in our home.
Like the Antiques Diva said, it is just a polite gesture to the chef, to wait for her to sit down and take her first bite.

Emilie- is it true that you really shouldn’t say ‘Bon Appetit” in France??

April 6, 2008

I read that NYTimes article and asked my boyfriend (who is French) about the “bon appetit” thing…and he agreed that to say it is kind of frowned upon. People still do it, but he says it’s not in good taste. For some reason, though, he says the shortened “bon ap” is more acceptable.

I’m still confused about the fork thing–American right-handed fork vs European left-handed. I had no idea I’ve been making a big huge faux pas all these years while in Europe!

April 6, 2008

In Italy there is just one exception to the rule of “waiting until everybody is served” (and that holds even when eating out) and that is eating pizza!
With pizza you can behave like a german….

I was taguht that too, but then often my dad would not wait until my mum had finished serving….that would annoy me soooo m uch!

April 6, 2008

oh… and we do say “buon appetito”…. that is not rude, unless not that I know of!

April 6, 2008

If at a dinner party, of course it is common courtesy to wait for the hostess to sit. Unless of course the meal is best eaten piping hot and the hostess herself says: “Please dig in.” In Latin America we have a saying: “Lo caliente no espera.” (Hot food doesn’t wait.) But again, this only works if the hostess proclaims it.

April 10, 2008

“How do the French know when to start eating?” Here’s how its been explained to me, plates of food are passed around the table from oldest to youngest woman with the hostess going last and then from oldest to youngest man. You wait until the hostess has picked-up her fork before starting to eat. She may wait until everyone is served or if she’s afraid of the food getting cold, will start as soon as she is served.

August 18, 2008

[…] Bon appétit! […]

December 21, 2008

In France we’re supposed to start eating only when the Maitresse de maison (hostess) has started.
This is not usual between french to say bon appetit…this is mainly used when we eat with foreign people….since it looks like they are waiting for!

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