Lifestyle

The psychology of small plates: why food service radically changes how much we eat


I was confronted by a conundrum at the weekend. My sister had made chickpea curry for 14, and a lentil and mushroom curry, also for 14, and there were 22 of us, and if you’re wondering why there was no meat on this table, it’s because all the meat eaters of the older generation are dead. Take heed, carnivores. Oh, but also, there were sausages.

Anyway, hours in, when I was on my fourth or fifth helping, I noticed that there was no end to it. No, there was more of it than when we started. There was a lake of chickpeas. We had got to the “Would you like to take some home?” stage. And here’s what was truly bizarre: the quantities weren’t actually for 14; she had taken a recipe for two, and tripled it. So, it was basically two dishes for six, and it could have fed three generations of extended Williamses for a week. How is this possible? How do you explain this exponential thing that happens, when you scale up a recipe a few times and somehow end up with enough to feed 1,000 people?

There is food psychology at play: if you experience plenty on a table, you don’t panic that it’s a scarce resource, and you tailor your portion. I once read a detailed analysis of the feeding of the 5,000, which posited that everybody had brought a small amount of food with them, but was excruciated by the potential embarrassment of having to share it with more people than it would feed. Once there were two spare fish kicking around, they felt liberated to crack out the nuts they had in their pocket. It’s possible that I should stop checking out literal-explanations-of-the-Bible websites. But you get the picture: abundance begets generosity, etc.

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So the question is, why don’t we always eat like this? The Russian service has a lot to answer for.

This is the meal convention we have settled on: a series of dishes served one after the other, raising the prospect that you will never quite get enough, unless you are presented from the start with way too much. It began to displace the French service – a table groaning with everything at once – in the early 19th century, but didn’t catch on in Britain for another 60-odd years, although that’s nothing on how long it took us to wake up to garlic.

Its benefits were twofold: the food was hotter as you ate it, and it required a lot of servants, so it made you look rich, provided, of course, that you were rich. In its original form, it could range from six courses to 30. You can see the trace of it in the modern tasting menu, favoured by people who look at the lithographs in Charles Ranhofer’s The Epicurean and think: “I wish I could look as bored as that.” (That is monumentally unfair: most of the illustrations are of coffee pots.)

Anyway, its bare bones were oysters, soup, fish, entree, roast, pudding. With their abundance and unimaginable poshness, the Russian aristocrats thus completely wiped the table with the French, whose only fightback was cheese. There was a simplified version for people who lacked the staff, known as the English service – soup, starter, roast, served by the actual hosts, which was only one rung above being fed in a stable – and you could argue the toss for ever about whether that caught on, since we have ended up with not 30 courses or even six, but three: a starter, a main course and a pudding. Yet at the same time, the overall fandango is very much rooted in service à la Russe. There’s something about descriptions of pre-revolutionary Russian cooking that is weirdly magical, Harry Potterish: boar, followed by walnuts in honey, followed by pancakes, followed by more boar. I can totally see how this went 19th-century viral.

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And yet the Russian service, in its modern, restaurant incarnation, is rigid and repetitive – always with the meat and two veg, always not enough of the best thing and too much of the worst, wasteful and individualistic. Everybody with any sense prefers what I choose to call the Spanish service, based on the discovery of tapas late last century – the freedom of having dishes small enough that you could order more if you wanted, the fellowship of being able to all eat from the whatever plate. You could just as well call it the Chinese service, based on dim sum. But this emphatically is not a return to the groaning tables of 18th-century France, since the dishes are deliberately small, which trend in turn created the Shoreditch service – a number of sharing plates that all cost as much as regular plates but aren’t as big.

I suspect the 2020s will see a return to the original ways – huge platters, all on the table at once, creating such an aura of largesse that you feel full just looking at them. Nobody will ever finish, but because the dishes are now made of chickpeas, it won’t matter.



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