A beautiful painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen is exposed in the Fabre museum in Montpellier, France. Its title is the well-known proverb: “As the Old sang, so shall the Young peep” (Soo D’Oude Songen, Soo Pypen De Jonge). A laughing young woman leans back comfortably while she has her glass filled, apparently not for the first time, by a boy teasingly holding the pitcher high, so that it is quite an effort for her to catch the thin stream of wine. The woman has already kicked out her slipper. High from the chimney, Amor looks down on her, as if to indicate that the wine will probably lead this cheerful woman astray. A bearded man sits behind her, his black hat low over his forehead. He looks satisfied and is apparently a long way off. Grandmother reads aloud roguish rhymes, a bagpipe whistles right through it, and on the table it’s an incredible mess of all kinds of food scraps.
In between the whole scene, the children. A baby sleeps through all the noise on the arm of her singing nurse. A toddler is sucking on the spout of a wine jug. Another child is whining to be the first to get hold of a completely unnecessary new dish that is still being carried in. A kid of about eight years old doesn’t even ask anymore – he gets a jug of wine from the cooler all by himself.
As often, Jan Steen (1625/26-1679) is moralizing here against excessive eating and drinking. The theme apparently interested him so much that a painting of the same name by him can be seen in the Mauritshuis in The Hague as well as in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And his other paintings often go too against excesses at table. On the other hand, those same paintings radiate so much joy that you wonder if he really meant to be so critical.
What makes me doubt most of all is the way that woman holds her wine glass: the flat part of the foot between thumb and forefinger, as it should be according to the etiquette. You can already see it in medieval drawings and paintings. And that’s how serious wine tasters still do! Not by the stem, let alone the whole glass in your greasy claw. No, subtly at the foot. Actually a very difficult way of holding which definitely requires concentration if you are a bit tipsy. However, that cheerful drinker brings it off fabulously well. Did Jan Steen mean to say that you do have to teach the children how to drink wine properly? And that it is difficult to draw the limit between ‘in moderation’ and immoderate? What is proper? – you learn that through “good” upbringing. From times immemorial books have been written about it, because it is so difficult, all those rules of etiquette.
But don’t the Old pass on all kinds of totally outdated traditions to the Young in this field? Just to keep it to the wine: you have those fixed combinations with dishes. White wine with fish, for example. Once I gave the advice to drink a rosé with a certain fish dish. Just because it tasted better. But how I deplored to have done it! One reviewer after another scornfully stated that I didn’t know the rules. But while in Montélimar I have even seen French connoisseurs drink red Côtes du Rhône with their fish. And in a classy Parisian bistro, they poured the rest of the red wine right over their dessert of strawberries with sugar. Yes, what is proper?
At the time, I always watched in horror when a dear friend of ours removed the lead from a wine bottle with a sensual gesture of his corkscrew. That was not the way to do it! Had he never seen how elegantly a good waiter always only cuts off the top? But that friend was ahead of his time. Nowadays, in France, you can only put your wine bottles in the bottle bank if you have the neck completely uncovered. Why then there is still lead (or aluminum or even plastic) around it? Simply because it is a habit from the time when wine bottles were still sealed with lacquer. Hence still the red. And that stupid cork, although wine professors have established already a long time ago that a screw cap is just as good and does not produce corked bottles.
Anyone who wants something new must dare to explore new paths. Otherwise this world will perish from conservatism. Children especially should not believe everything adults claim to be true. All innovation starts with revolutionary behaviour, also at or under the table. That is what makes life so exciting.