Food in the Workplace, Vol. 13, Issue 27

Dear Etiquetteer: At work, most Fridays, the company provides bagels for breakfast. Many times, I've already eaten breakfast. Is it appropriate to take a bagel home and eat it on Saturday? Would it make a difference if I waited until 10ish, when most of the bagels are gone?

Dear Bageled:

It's ironic that your query should arrive on this particular Friday, as Etiquetteer's own workplace is nearly impassable with free food - from farewell breakfasts, from a caterer's bountiful tasting, from Heaven knows what else.

Etiquetteer believes that priority should be given to those who intend to consume provided food immediately, and so endorses your waiting until just after the breakfast rush to select a bagel to enjoy later. You show exceptional and courteous restraint. Etiquetteer, in over 25 years in the work force, has seen some appalling behavior around free food in the workplace. Circling like vultures for the kill doesn't even begin to describe it . . .

On days of Exceptional Bounty, the best time to head to the office kitchen would be 4:30 PM to package any desired leftovers for the journey home. While only very few might snarl, you'll be blessed with gratitude from your poor colleague whose responsibility it is to clean the kitchen the next day.

Potluck Assignments, Vol. 11, Issue 14

Dear Etiquetteer: I'm part of a community that regularly holds potlucks for holidays and events. Different people coordinate each potluck with loosely organized online spreadsheets for people to list what they'll bring. We often suggest a theme, and our community has a few dietary restrictions, but otherwise we let people bring what they like -- as long as they bring enough for others, of course!

This arrangement has worked well so far. The person coordinating the latest potluck, however, has already decided on a Mexican-themed menu featuring make-your-own tacos. To that end, the person has told people to sign up for specific dishes as well as for specific ingredients -- for example, "fresh diced tomatoes" and "chopped cilantro" for around forty people. The person has also designed the online spreadsheet in a way that discourages people from listing other items.

It seems like poor form to dictate the terms of a so-called "potluck" so carefully, especially given the precedent we've established in our community. It also makes the potluck less fun: we have many members who would have gladly prepared more interesting Mexican dishes. What is your take, Etiquetteer?

Dear Potlucked Out:

Certainly it appears to be sufficiently different from your group's usual practice, which is cause enough for concern. The need for control at a meal one is coordinating but not entirely cooking oneself can be tricky, particularly for meals as large as the number you indicate; probably the worst example can be seen here. Perhaps this is La Reina de México's first time to coordinate for your community potluck? A potluck coordinator does need to be allowed some authority, even when acting as part of a group instead of as an independent host. Still, this sounds unnecessarily limiting, but Etiquetteer doesn't attribute it to bossiness on the part of La Reina de México. This person probably likes tacos, or just thought it would be a good group activity without considering the extensive range of True Mexican Cuisine.

As is so often in the case of manners, Communication is the solution. Those who felt limited by the options available should have communicated privately with La Reina de México to offer other dishes, or at least share concerns from the group about the departure from Standard Operating Procedure. One could ruffle a few feathers by using the spreadsheet differently from its original intent -- Heaven knows Etiquetteer has met enough people who have perverted online surveys and spreadsheets for their own purposes! -- by merely adding unrelated text in a field with one's own comment, such as "I'm going to bring chili con carne for 40 - hope you don't mind!" But Etiquetteer cannot recommend this approach because it will embarrass La Reina de México publicly and unnecessarily. The next time La Reina de México ends up volunteering to coordinate, be sure this person knows that freedom of choice is a central value of your potluck community.

Etiquetteer does have a few rules about potlucks:

  1. The host/coordinator should be responsible for the meat dish, since that's often the most expensive. That said, for very large groups like this one, other guests may be assigned meat dishes.
  2. If the host/coordinator gives you an assignment that you are unable to fulfill or just plain don't like, communicate with that person privately; this is not a time for "Reply All." Thinking host/coordinators will offer another assignment. Otherwise you might need to plan to visit your friend Bunbury in the country.
  3. Arrive on time! Nothing affects the service of a meal more than a portion of that meal not actually being in the house. Be sure to confirm with your host/coordinator at what time the buffet is to be open (as opposed to what time everyone is to arrive) so that you can plan accordingly.
  4. The portion of the meal you bring should be ready to serve when you arrive in the house. Do not expect to prepare and cook it when you get there. The only preparation that should be required is to uncover it, and heat it if necessary. This is especially true for salads and other dishes that require lots of chopping, mincing, or shredding. No kitchen has infinite counter space, you have no idea how many people may be fighting to use the one cutting board in the house, and the host/coordinator will still be preparing the meat dish. This is probably why Etiquetteer continues to find casseroles the best potluck food.
  5. It is kind, but not required, to offer to help with the dishes. That said, expect to take home dirty the serving items you brought.
  6. Don't quarrel over the leftovers. It's so petty.

Questions of Culinary Presentation, Vol. 4, Issue 17

Dear Etiquetteer: I recently hosted a meeting of my book group and provided refreshments that included Brie and crackers. I was astounded when one guest, the friend of a friend of one of our long-time members, used a cracker to slice/scoop up the soft Brie cheese instead of using the knife provided. Her fingers were covered with Brie after she repeated this act a few times and none of the other guests wanted to eat the cheese she had contaminated. I didn't know what to do. At the end of the evening I politely offered her the remaining Brie because she had enjoyed eating it all evening. She was delighted. Also, I had provided each guest with a small plate and napkin. This same guest chose not to use them and popped each Brie-covered cracker directly into her mouth. By the end of the evening her dark slacks were covered with white smears of Brie where she had wiped her hands and she left crumbs all over.I'd appreciate your advice on how I could have handled this situation more pro-actively. This guests' behavior was truly disgusting and distracting. In a few months I'll be asked to host the book group again. HELP! Dear Booked: Oh, beware the friends of friends! Take a tip from Rudyard Kipling, who told the tale in his story 'A Friend's Friend' of how a friend's acquaintance embarrassed himself (and everyone else) with a spectacular display of public drunkenness at a society ball. The Gentlemen had their revenge, however, by decorating his passed-out form with whipped cream, ham-frills, and other Victorian hors d'oeuvres before rolling him up into a carpet and throwing him onto a freight train. Don't you just love the English? They always know how to put one in one's place . . .Brie Woman already seems adept at decorating herself with food, more's the pity, so that approach is out. Really, Etiquetteer doesn't know why you bother; this sort of person is not the sort who understands what Polite Society means, and therefore should not be included. But, on to more practical solutions. Etiquetteer admires the way you finessed disposing of the pillaged Brie. It practically defines 'killing with kindness.' Next time your'e forced to entertain this person, you have Etiquetteer's full permission to say, 'Oh, here's the cheese knife, dear' when you see her aiming a cracker at the cheese; you may even offer to slice it for her. And when she begins wiping her hands on her slacks (ugh! just the thought makes Etiquetteer ill), go right ahead and hand her a napkin saying, 'Oh, don't muss your slacks! Here's a napkin, dear.' Her rejection of your care and attention will only redound on her. As a last resort, you might prepare individual plates of refreshments for each guest, so that everyone has their own delicate morsels to enjoy. It's more work, of course, but at least everyone would feel that their refreshments were safe from Brie Woman's cooties.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I work in a large office and hand out only wrapped candy. Why? Because there are coworkers who will run their hands through unwrapped candy, who will cough or sneeze on it ? in other words, they cannot help themselves from marking it with their germs. It seems almost unconscious.

The challenge is when someone else puts out unwrapped food. How do I politely suggest that it is a bad idea? Of course I either decide that my immune system is up to fighting off the germs or not eat them.

Dear Wrapped:

Etiquetteer applauds your thoughtfulness in providing wrapped treats for your colleagues and clients. And while acknowledging the purity of your movites, Etiquetteer really must advise that criticizing your colleagues is not going to make a positive impression. Continue to decline politely anything offered that you don't care to eat for whatever reason.

Dear Etiquetteer: When I entertain I sometimes want to keep the leftovers for future lunches. How do I handle the guest who either wants additional helpings at the time of the meal or to take some home with her? Last time one of the other guests offered her own leftovers to a hungry guest and suggested that she get seconds of the less expensive side dishes, which saved the day. Dear Pecked Hostess: Good heavens! Are you entertaining friends, family, or a plague of locusts?Asking for a doggie bag in a private home is just beyond the pale, if you ask Etiquetteer. Confronted with the request, however, Etiquetteer thinks it Perfectly Proper to decline with an apology that you need to make the pot roast, lobster bisque, macaroni, or whatever last to next Tuesday. You eliminate the problem altogether when you bring in prepared plates from the kitchen; this way your guests don't see that there's anything left over.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at!

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