Many things betray one's nationality, if for no other reason than that the common stereotypes hit bulls' eyes (which is why they are stereotypes). Frankly, though, I think that you can always tell where a fellow comes from by listening to him at the end of his dinner.
When an American pushes away from the table, he'll invariably say 'I'm full' (preceded, by polite Yanks, with 'No, thanks'). Variations on this commonplace, quite often heard on Thanksgiving Day, are 'God, I'm stuffed' or 'If I eat another bite, I'll explode.'
For an American, feeling sated is about quantity and space, particularly about how much food I can—or can no longer—fit into my stomach.
Quantity and space are the great American rubrics—bigger cars, the Homestead Act, keeping up with the Joneses, having a lawn to mow, home entertainment centers, men on the moon or, in that trite but telling Americanism, 'the whole nine yards.'
Few other cultures are as somatic about dinner's effect. And even when they are, they still tell all about their culture.
A Thai man might say Im lao kap—'I'm full'—but what is more crucial is that he first will have laid his fork and spoon crosswise, in a very specific design, in the middle of the plate. In the end, he needn't have said anything.
In India, Hindi speakers express, very elaborately, Mera pét bhar gaya hai, gha nya bad—'That is enough, my stomach is full, thank you very much.' Look at the words: a quick reference to the corporeal, book ended by both declarative and decorous expressions by one person to another. One stomach; two worlds.
Some peoples eschew any table talk about the body. It would never—jamais, jamais, jamais—occur to a Frenchman to say 'I am full' at the end of a meal.
Instead, Ca suffit or C'est suffisant are dainty French circumlocutions that tell the hostess 'That suffices' or, in an imperious phrase that would make both DeGaulle and Louis XIV proud, 'It is sufficient.'
The French are loathe to speak about their bodies. They consider themselves more refined than that, more cerebral, less somatic. It is true that their food and wine are celestial—but so are they.
A German, when he reaches that moment when he simply cannot eat any more, says Ich bin satt und zufrieden, 'I am satisfied and at peace.'
How deliciously cerebral; but it is more than that.
In German, der Friede means 'peace, tranquility,' but very much in the sense that it lends to the noun der Friedhof, cemetery, a place for the final deposit of all one's energy. And to zufrieden, at the end of a meal, 'I am at peace.'
Freud—that quintessential figurer of the Teutonic mind—held that the innate tension of organic life seeks release, relaxation. Sex was Freud's paradigm for that dynamic—he chose well—but all else living also embodies that move.
To Freud, all instincts—among them, for food—led to a death instinct, the final relaxation of all instincts, an end peace.
A German sitting in her chair at the end of a good dinner is walking her way toward the graveyard, in more ways than one, and she knows it and says it.
Perhaps the heartiest eaters in the world are Russians. Despite the image of the threadbare Russian cupboard, tables there groan with food and drink and a meal is as much about toasts, songs, laughs and more toasts as it is about eats.
So, after round after round of vodka and borscht, a Russian ends his meal with Ya naelsya, ''I've eaten and eaten until I just can't anymore.' Push him at that point for 'one more small bite' and he might retort Ya obelsya which means 'I'm so full that if you ask me again bad things will happen.'
The best things in Italy are like the perfect shoe: simple and exquisitely beautiful.
Because it is impolite to say 'I'm full' at the end of an Italian meal, a simple Basta, grazie ('Enough, thank you') will do, even No, grazie ('No, thank you').
But to shut down a meal, I have heard, too, the verbal applause, nearly sung out, of Ottimo! ('Excellent!') or Perfetto! ('Perfect!'). The Italian flag should have an exclamation point printed on its middle field.
So as not to remotely insult their hosts, Japanese say nothing when sated.
'In Japan, it is up to the host to know when not to serve any more food,' says Nobuko Katsumura, owner with her husband, Yoshi, of Yoshi's restaurant on Halsted Street.
Of course it is.