On French aristocratic seating arrangements

The French aristocratic seating procedure is something I find quite bewildering.

Inevitably I am the youngest adult, and of course neither a priest nor a member of the military. Therefore I often sit at the head of the table. From the middle of the table Grand-père and Grand-mère conduct the proceedings. To Grand-père’s right sits the highest ranking woman (after Grand-mère) and to his left the second highest ranking woman. When there are only three women for dinner this is me. If there are only two women then we sit at the kitchen table.

The highest ranking man (ignoring Grand-père) sits to Grand-mère’s right. To her left sits the second highest. The pattern continues until everyone has sat down, following rank order, alternating between man and woman.

Everyone but me has an innate understanding of this order. I just know I’m at the bottom.

Grand-père serves the woman to his right first, then the woman to his left. He serves me before passing the plate to Grand-mère but after all other women. I’m not allowed to eat until Grand-mère had begun. I’m given a piece of bread at the beginning of my meal to use at the end to mop up the sauce. Inevitably I eat it first and then spend a while wondering whom I can interrupt to ask for the bread basket. The seven year old informed me that you must never take two pieces of bread at a time. Even if they are very small pieces. It’s rude. Furthermore, I find I drink my wine too slowly in comparison to everyone else, this vexes Grand-père and his smooth, wine pouring routine and therefore disrupts his own meal.

Otherwise it’s seamless.

Grand-mère says that it’s not just her who can make cooking and serving roast dinner for twenty-five look effortless. Her mother, her mother in law, her sister-in-law, all these people know, or knew, how to really enjoy a grand family meal. What’s more, she’s an outstanding cook. The meat is from the field and the vegetables from the garden. I’m in awe.

In comparison, I can cook roast dinner. I could even cook roast dinner for twenty-five, or at least I could if I had somewhere to seat everyone. But mid-meal you’d be unable to engage me in a meaningful and considered conversation, I’d be worrying about the gravy. Afterwards I’d sneak out from the washing up for a nap. I’d look like a wreak.

So I think Grand-mère’s magical. Her secret weapon though, is that everyone around her knows exactly which way to pass what plate when.

That’s something to ponder.

1 Comment
  • Clare Pooley
    Tuesday 18 October 2016

    Wonderful! I love your writing Catherine!