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Singularities Observed by Various Nations in their Repasts

THE philosophical compiler of L’Esprit des Usages et des Coutumes has arranged the greater part of the present article.

The Maldivian islanders eat alone. They retire into the most hidden parts of their houses; and they draw down the cloths that serve as blinds to their windows, that they may eat unobserved. This custom probably arises from the savage, in early periods of society, concealing himself to eat: he fears that another with as sharp an appetite, but more strong than himself, should come and ravish his meal from him. The ideas of witchcraft are also widely spread among barbarians; and they are not a little fearful that same incantatiton may be thrown among their victuals.

In noticing the solitary meal of the Maldivian islander, another reason may be alleged for this misanthropical repast. They never will eat with any one who is inferior to them in birth, in riches, or dignity; and as it is a difficult matter to settle this equality, they are condemned to lead this unsociable life.On the contrary, the islanders of the Philippines are remarkably sociable. Whenever one of them finds himself without a companion to partake of his meal, he runs till he meets with one; and we are assured that, however keen his appetite may be, he ventures not to satisfy it without a guest.

Savages (says Montaigne), when thy eat, “S’essuyent les doigts aux cuisses, à la bourse des génitoires, et à la plante des pieds.” We cannot forbear exulting in the polished convenience of napkins!

The tables of the rich Chinese shine with a beautiful varnish, and are covered with silk carpets very elegantly worked. They do not make use of plates, knives, and forks: every guest has two little ivory or ebony sticks, which he handles very adroitly.

The Otaheiteans, who are naturally sociable, and very gentle in their manners, feed separately from each other. At the hour of repast, the members of each family divide; two brothers, two sisters, and even husband and wife, father and mother, have each their respective basket. They place themselves at the distance of two or three yards from each other; they turn their backs, and take their meal in profound silence.

The custom of drinking at different hours from those assigned for eating is to he met with amongst many savage nations. It was originally begun from necessity. It became a habit, which subsisted even when the fountain was near to them. A people transplanted, observes our ingenious philosopher, preserve in another climate modes of living which relate to those from whence they originally came. It is thus the Indians of Brazil scrupulously abstain from eating when they drink, and from drinking when they eat.

When neither decency nor politeness are known, the man who invites his friends to a repast is greatly embarrassed to testify his esteem for his guests, and to present them with some amusement; for the savage guest imposes on him this obligation. Amongst the greater part of the American Indians, the host is continually on the watch to solicit them to eat, but touches nothing himself. In New France, he wearies himself with singing, to divert the company while they eat.

When civilization advances, men wish to show their confidence to their friends: they treat their guests as relations; and it is said that in China the master of the house, to give a mark of his politeness, absents himself while his guests regale themselves at his table with undisturbed revelry.

The demonstrations of friendship in a rude state have a savage and gross character, which it is not a little curious to observe. The Tartars pull a man by the ear to press him to drink, and they continue tormenting him till he opens his mouth, then they clap their hands and dance before him.

No customs seem more ridiculous than those practised by a Kamschatkan, when he wishes to make another his friend. He first invites him to eat. The host and his guest strip themselves in a cabin which is heated to an uncommon degree. While the guest devours the food with which they serve him, the other continually stirs the fire. The stranger must bear the excess of the heat as well as of the repast. He vomits ten times before he will yield; but, at length obliged to aacknowledge himself overcome, he begins to compound matters. He purchases a moment’s respite by a present of clothes or dogs; for his host threatens to heat the cabin, and oblige him to eat till he dies. The stranger has the right of retaliation allowed to him: he treats in the same manner, and exacts the same presents. Should his host not accept the invitation of him whom he had so handsomely regaled, in that case the guest would take possession of his cabin, till he had the presents returned to him which the other had in so singular a manner obtained.

For this extravagant custom a curious reason has been alleged. It is meant to put the person to a trial, whose friendship is sought. The Kamschatdale, who is at the expense of the fires, and the repast, is desirous to know if the stranger has the strength to support pain with him, and if he is generous enough to share with him some part ot his property. While the guest is employed on his meal, he continues heating, the cabin to an insupportable degree; and for a last proof of the stranger’s constancy and attachment, he exacts more clothes and more dogs. The host passes through the same ceremonies in the cabin of the stranger; and he shows, in his turn, with what degree of fortitude he can defend his friend. The most singular customs would appear simple, if it were possible for the philosopher to understand them on the spot.

As a distinguishing mark of their esteem, the negroes of Ardra drink out of one cup at the same time. The king of Loango eats in one house, and drinks in another. A Kamschatkan kneels before his guests; he cuts an enormous slice from a sea-calf; he crams it entire into the mouth ot his friend, furiously crying out “Tana!”—There! and cutting away what hangs about his lips, snatches and swallows it with avidity.

A barbarous magnificence attended the feasts of the ancient monarchs of France. After their coronation or consecration, when they sat at table, the nobility served them on horseback.


Editor’s Notes

 § Three footnotes were appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, further to the habits of the ‘islanders of the Philippines:’

In Cochin-China, a traveller may always obtain his dinner by simply joining the family of the first house he may choose to enter, such hospitality being the general custom.

Second, further to the phrase ‘eating when they drink, and from drinking when they eat:’

Esprit des Usages, et des Coutumes.

And, third, after the paragraph concluding with the words ‘undisturbed revelry:’

If the master be present, he devotes himself to cramming his guests to repletion.

 ¶ This article first appeared in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities in a form nearly identical to that given above.