Wiping Your Hands On Dough

The Art Of The Table

If you skim through Suzanne Von Drachenfels book, “The Art of the Table,” and then, stretch your mind wide enough, you’ll see that napery has something in common with electronic gadgetry.

With the passage of time, both have shrunk in size. Over the course of its nearly 3,000-year evolutionary timeline, the dining napkin has been a ball of sticky flour, a flappy counterpane, a parquet of fabric, a tile of soft paper, and for a period—extinct.

A jaw-dropper, the napkin has lineally descended from a lump of dough. After meals, ancient Spartans sat around to roll and knead a lump of dough against the table called “apomagdalie,” a custom that later, evolved to sliced bread as wipes.

Napkins, made of cloth, entered into circulation during the reign of the Romans. A people with a large appetite for gladiatorial sports, who delighted at the sight of a blood-splattered arena, they didn’t, however, enjoy the sight of gastronomic stains on their imperial togas and Centurion uniforms.

So, they were careful to drape a “mappae,” a largish sheet, over the edge of couches, lest they were soiled by sauce spillages and food morsels. With the smaller, handkerchief-like “sudaria,” they’d mop the sweat off their brows.

In the early Middle Ages, table manners took a beating. Whatever version of napkin that hitherto been around, abruptly disappeared. Hands and mouths were cleaned at any surface that was readily available. Thankfully, dining civility made a comeback in the 1500s, on the threshold of the Renaissance.

It returned in an oversize splendor: the table was laid with not one, but three pieces of capacious cloth, each about the size of curtains, measuring 4 to 6 feet in length and 5 feet in width. That was the napkin, at its glory.

As the clock moved forward, it got progressively smaller, though, it was by no means, small.

In the 17th century, by which time the napkin had become a norm, they were still king-size. 35 by 45 square-inches, they were nearly as large as today’s bath towels. They still absorbed the atrocity of the callous wiping of palms, greasy with lard, cream, drippings; dusty with breads crumbs; and dripping with water.

The acceptance of the fork in the 18th century by all classes of society brought neatness to dining, therefore, reducing the size of the napkin to roughly 30 by 36 square-inches.

Returning to the present, we find that those at Applebee’s are two-ply paper napkins that stop at 15 by 17 square-inches.

h/t: WSJ

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