Earlier, one would sit down to an empty leaf, and the servers would come and start serving the various dishes. One had the option of refusing things that one might not like, and asking for small quantities to be served. One had the time, while the various dishes were served, to taste some of them, and try the different tastes and textures. Many of the items on the upper half of the leaf would be "asked" (literal translation from Tamizh) again, at which point, one could eat a little more of it, if one wanted to. There was an unhurried service of sAmbAr, then moar kuzhambu, then rasam, and then, after the pAyasam or sweet had been served, thayir and moar would follow for the final mixing with the rice.
One walks into a "dining hall" to find that all the "upper leaf items" have been piled on to the leaves, and some of the "lower leaf" items, too. The "chitrAnnam" (mixed rice), chips and other items are quickly served. Rice is served too,the ghee, dal, and sAmbAr poured on, and then, in a trice, the moar kuzhambu is upon one, and one has to make a little space in the rice for it on the side away from the sAmbAr for it, or wave it away. Rasam is served in a cup, the pAyasam in another, and even as one starts eating the sAmbAr rice, the curds or curd rice is dumped on one's leaf. There is absolutely no time to savour anything, one just struggles to keep up, and the amount of wastage is colossal, when one multiplies the amount on one's leaf by the number of leaves in that "pandhi" (service) by the number of "pandhi"s. Very often, people sit with some leaves in between, and these leaves, with all the food on them, are cleared away along with the used leaves.
I just cannot keep up with this kind of express service, and often wind up saying no to most of the items, and sometimes wind up eating hardly anything at all, before I have to get up. What a travesty of a feast! The one commodity that raises a meal to a feast...the time to savour it...is not provided. The caterer has fulfilled his obligation of serving X dishes and Y leaves; he's been paid for the food, so he doesn't mind (er, this kind of person HAS to be a he, he-he-he!) what's being wasted....and when the host asks, the guests formally and politely reply that the feast was excellent. What a farce this is....
My mother used to tell me the "anju mAttupoNNu kathai" (story of the five daughters-in-law). The mother in law, anxious that the guests be properly served, had allocated the tasks in the meal service to each daughter-in-law. 1 would put down the banana leaf, and sprinkle water on it so that the guest could clean it; 2 would serve the vegetables; 3 would serve the rice, sambar, and rasam; 4 would serve the payasam and the thayir; and 5 would remove the leaf and clean up the place.
As soon as the guest sat down, 1 to 5 got quickly to work, and the leaf was put, water was sprinkled, food was served, the leaf was taken away, and the place cleaned...and the daughters-in-law just overlooked the tiny detail that the guest had to EAT in the middle of all this. The whole service was done with in a few minutes.
So...I hate "anju mAttupoNNu" meals....