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August 21, 2012

Foreign Affairs . . .

. . . ordinamenta et consuetudo maris?

“Before you dash off…” dash off?  A guest at Charles’ gentlemen supper was compelled to give me a lecture on the history and customs of toasting.  Here is what I recall.

“Though having a drink is today one of the most common forms of relaxation, once the act was literally fraught with peril.  In Anglo-Saxon England, when a person wanted to take a drink, he asked the person sitting next to him if he would “pledge” him.  The second person then held up his knife or sword and stood guard so that no one would attack the drinker while he was vulnerable.  More than just a polite ritual, this was a necessary service: the Danes had a bad habit of slitting Saxons’ throats while their heads were tilted back in the act of drinking.  In Germanic countries, around the same time, glass-bottomed mugs, which allowed the drinker to see danger coming, were invented.

But the history of rituals surrounding drinking does have a romantic side as well.  Whether in rhyme of prose, the most common form of toast has been to a woman.  The very word came about as a paean to a woman: In the late seventeenth century a piece of grilled bread was sometimes put into wine to give it substance.  One day, the story goes, in the English city of Bath, while a beautiful woman was taking the cure, one of her admirers took a glass full of her bathwater to drink to her health.  Another admirer, half-drunk, tried to jump in with the lady, saying, “Tho he lik’d not the Liquor, he would have the Toast.”  Ever since, toast has its present-day meaning (the word is used even in France, the dismay of the language purists).

Unlike Americans, for whom toasting has become an occasional and slapdash matter, most Europeans toast and clink glasses whenever possible.  The most casual toasting is done when friends meet at a bistro or a bar to share a glass of wine (toasting is never done with water anywhere in the world-it’s considered bad luck).
In France one says cin, cin, if informal, or salut whilst clinking.  A latecomer, upon being poured some wine, clinks his glass against those glasses sitting on the table and says salut or cin cin as a way of becoming a member of the group.  If the gathering is a bit more formal one would say sante, or a votre sante.

Habits are much the same in Italy.  Whether or not one clinks (in both France and Italy), it is considered ill-mannered not to look someone in the eye when toasting, even in the most casual setting.  The most casual toast in Italy is cin cin; this term may have originated there, in a ubiquitous advertisement for Cinzano.

German wine drinkers a very exacting.  The glasses are always lifted high, clinked against each other and the drinkers look each other in the eye and say prost, or prosit.  They may also say zum Wohle.  When drinking beer, however, Germans simply raise their glasses without clinking but perhaps with an offhand prost and a nod.  A great place to watch this in one of Munich’s enormous beer halls.

Germans have even incorporated toasting into a common ritual called Bruderschaft, which means "brotherhood" and signifies the time when two people begin to call each other by their first names. The two friends who perform this ritual link their arms, drink, and kiss each other on the cheek; forever afterward they are intimates.

The English do not share in this Continental conviviality. They, like Americans, are slightly self-conscious about vocal acknowledgment of pleasures to come and do not therefore make much of casual toasts. They don't often clink glasses, and unless they are eager young lovers they hardly ever look one another in the eye. An indifferent "cheers" is the most common beginning to a round of drinking, although you might also hear the odd "bottoms up."  The contingent of Sloane Rangers, however, cultivate a more European demeanor; they clink glasses, make a point of direct, unblinking eye contact, and say cin cin or some other foreign toast.

As uncomfortable as the English are about informal toasting, they are absolute world champions at giving formal toasts, the most prevalent of which is the Loyal Toast to the sovereign. This toast is incorporated into all formal dinners, most especially those with a ceremonial setting, such as guild hall or university dinners. The Loyal Toast dates from medieval days, when drinking to the health of the queen or king was an important statement of allegiance. Today it is a pro forma ritual and signals the point in the dinner after which it is permissible to smoke. It is always given-usually after the pudding course-by the person in charge of the dinner, who says, "Gentlemen, the Queen." Everyone raises his glass, drinks, and then lights up, preparing to listen to the endless speeches that follow.

The Germans are not far behind the English when it comes to formal toasting. At a formal, seated dinner, particularly a business dinner, toasting begins after the eating is finished, and often everyone present is obliged to participate. The president of the company might start things by standing up, raising his glass, and offering a sentence or two about the corporate merger, or whatever matter is being celebrated. Afterward, everyone else stands, one by one, and makes his own toast, which is, again, usually business related.

The farther north you go in Europe, the more formal the toasting habits. In Sweden the rules for toasting are followed to the letter: you raise your glass of wine (never beer or water) to chest level-where the third button on a soldier's uniform would be-look your companion in the eye, say skoal, drink, lower the glass to chest level, and nod your head. (The Swedish expression skoal comes from the ancient practice-adhered to until the eleventh century-of drinking from the skull of an enemy that has been killed.) The only optional part of this ritual is the clinking of glasses, and it is important to maintain eye contact throughout. In an informal setting, the Swedes like to sing drinking songs throughout the meal.

All over the world, when gourmet societies meet, formal toasts are an important part of the proceedings. At such gatherings, there is always a strict rule that when toasting with white wine or champagne, one must hold up the glass by the stem or the base, in order not to warm the wine during the time that the toast is being given. (True oenophiles almost always hold their glasses of champagne or white wine by the stem or base, toast or no toast.)
If a toast is being given in your honor in the United States, you are not allowed to lift your glass, but must graciously accept every one's good wishes without drinking. However, throughout Europe no such unfortunate restrictions exist, and the person being toasted is allowed to drink along with the group.

The elaborate quasi-poetic toast-whether from literature or from the heart-is found less and less around the world, but it still has currency in the more civilized circles of some countries. It had its heyday in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, until Prohibition virtually eliminated the widespread practice. Until then, every well-heeled man and woman memorized several toasts, each suitable for a different occasion.

There are many of us who feel that a dinner without a formal toast-as opposed to the impromptu and abbreviated variety-is like a book without a dedication. To enjoy the custom, however, one must be comfortable being the center of attention and not mind that after such a toast-or after a few extemporaneous words to honor a person or an occasion-there will be dead silence around the table. It's usually an awkward moment.”

An awkward moment followed.  I said thank you very much and I did not have the heart to tell the good gentleman that most of my toasting and hosting would be with gentlemen who are strict followers of the laws of the Qur'an.

Perhaps I better get acquainted with the social ritual of smoking a hookah?