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Forklore, Food Fights and the Politics of Placecards : Manners: Margaret Visser has spent years studying the way we eat--and what it says about us.

August 06, 1992|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margaret Visser estimates that humanity has been meeting for dinner for two million years. That gives the author of "The Rituals of Dinner," a humane and learned meditation on why people eat the way they do, plenty of sociology and history to examine--lots of pots and pans and burps and toasts and food fights. Visser deconstructs them all, telling us a very great deal about ourselves in the process.

Visser never intended to become the world's leading authority on the folkways of the table. Fifteen years ago, having completed her doctoral studies in ancient Greek religion, she was living in Toronto, making do by writing the occasional academic article and accepting the odd teaching appointment.

One day a friend mentioned that she had just done a radio talk show and that Visser really ought to try "doing" radio herself.

Radio talk shows were not Visser's idea of an edifying expenditure of time; she barely recognized the name of the show her friend cited: CBC's "Morningside," which in fact is the best-known radio show in all Canada. She looked up the number and dialed, having no idea that doing so was comparable to an unknown American calling up Ted Koppel and proposing to stop in for a chat on "Nightline."

"What do you want to talk about?" asked the dubious voice at the end of the line.

"Ancient Greek mythology," Visser replied with the utter certainty of vocation.

The booker told her they'd be in touch and tried to hang up. But before he could cut her off, Visser got in a parting remonstration, advising him that he couldn't possibly understand life in contemporary Toronto if he didn't understand the ancient Greeks.

The remark was to be Visser's great beginning, though she didn't know it at the time.

Months after the kiss-off, "Morningside" had a last-minute cancellation. Visser's phone rang, and there was the CBC booker on the line, now with a desperate tone in his voice.

"Aren't you the lady who said we couldn't understand life in Toronto if we didn't know about the Greeks?" he asked.

"Yes," Visser said.

"Well, we want you to go on the radio and prove it," he said.

Visser, seldom at a loss for something to say, came right over and delivered an authoritative and captivating recitation on just why it is that North Americans don't eat insects. She happened to have well-developed views on the subject, having grown up in Zambia (when it was still called Northern Rhodesia), a part of the world where people do, in fact, eat bugs.

The many thousands of Canadians who tune in to "Morningside" each day loved it. The CBC called her back. And back again.

The essay on insect-eating was the prototype for what would ultimately become Visser's stock-in-trade: Learned but accessible explanations of commonplace items and practices that most North Americans take for granted.

Visser says she sees these things, and asks questions about them, because she is something of a cultural orphan.

"I was brought up by nuns in the jungle," she reminds an interviewer. "I've got the classics, and I've got Africa and I've got the Victorians--it's all part of my life."

In any case, Visser was soon making regular performances, and "Morningside" listeners were writing in to ask where they could buy her book. Visser hadn't written a book, but she decided it was high time she did.

She settled on food, she says, because "everybody's interested in food." Her first book, "Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal," published in 1986, is an exhaustive social and economic history of eating, organized around the courses of a simple North American dinner.

"A wonderfully learned, intelligent book about food; in every few lines one learns something one did not know before, about something important," Robertson Davies, probably Canada's greatest living man of letters, offered in a review.

Inviting Visser to dinner is a daunting prospect. In person, she is . . . imposing. Tall and vital, with a strong head of auburn hair, she is the daughter of an English father and Irish mother who raised her (in Visser's estimation) in a high Edwardian manner.

And then there is the book. "The Rituals of Dinner" is, for all its good-naturedness, a scary work, devoted as it is to the mystery and menace of entertaining, the politics that underlie each decision confronting a host, the risks borne in each seemingly innocent gesture of hospitality.

Faced with all this, I went ahead and asked Visser to dinner . . . and found myself worrying.

Consider, for example, the seating plan. "Placing guests at table is a deeply political act," insists Visser. Even "where diners are not ranked, a political, or social and religious, statement is just as surely being made."

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