Banana faux pas

Food - Bee Wilson takes lessons in the etiquette of eating fruit

John Morgan, the etiquette expert and owner of 300 monogrammed shirts, died recently at the tender age of 41. His repertoire of elegant advice included, among other things, guidance on how to eat fruit when out in society. "The politest way to eat pomegranates is privately," Morgan admonished. His advice on the banana was intricate. "There are several variations on how to attack a banana, and these tend to range from the simian to the suburban." The best thing to do was lie the banana flat, cutting off the ends and slicing lengthways through the skin before easing out the fruit, to be eaten "in small individual bite-sized pieces, either by hand or with a knife and fork".

I am more of the simian school, but can still appreciate the structural beauty of this approach. However, there's more to the etiquette of fruit eating than even Morgan hinted.

Oxbridge legend tells various stories about the eating of fruit with a knife and fork. At a certain college, there is an annual dinner to determine which promising young scholars will be elected as Fellows. An unforgiving ritual is acted out involving dessert plates and small fruits. The electors watch, ready to pounce, as the poor young things struggle to spear grapes and cherries on their forks before they slip off the plate on to the floor. Passion fruit is offered, but without spoons, so that the slippery yellow seeds spill from fruit to mouth making an unseemly mess. The candidate who best manoeuvres the fruit bowl wins the job.

Everything about this story sounds apocryphal, yet I have attended meals that make it all too plausible. The college dessert is confirmation of Gordon Brown's strongest suspicions about Oxbridge elitism. Dons rigged up in gowns sip port and gossip over bowls of nuts and fruit. The seating plan is elaborate, and ignored at your peril. Snobbish rules emerge not only about how to pass the port, but also about how to dissect and eat a pineapple. Hapless guests who peel a lychee the wrong way, or spit out a kumquat in horror at its sourness, are punished with Batemanesque stares.

In the late Middle Ages, on the other hand, it was not how but when fruit was eaten that really mattered. Dietetic tracts claimed that "cold" fruits or those "subject to putrescence" should be eaten at the start of the meal, and other fruits at the end. Cherries, plums, apricots, blackberries, peaches, figs and, above all, melons, were to be eaten as starters. Apples, pears, quinces, chestnuts and medlars were to be eaten as pudding, to prevent the other food from "coming up" and hasten its passage through the body. These dietary laws became custom, and it would be thought bad form to eat a juicy fruit for dessert. A genteel English summer pudding, ripe with raspberries and redcurrants, would be thought very odd. There were other guidelines, too, such as serving melon with a small amount of meat to keep it from putrefying, a forerunner of our habit of serving melon with Parma ham. It took centuries for taste to win out over digestion, and for juicy fruits to be once more allowed at the end of a meal.

Yet now the fruit etiquette has come full circle. According to innumerable bestselling books on "food combining", it is infra dig to eat any fruit at all at a meal unless fruit is all that you eat. The reason given is the risk of "fermentation in the gut". If you really must have an apple, eat it as a starter, 20 to 30 minutes before the rest of the meal. In John Morgan's world, this would have been bad manners. But in these diet-craven times, it seems that answering to your digestion is not merely acceptable, but actually polite.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness