Kitchen Calm: An Appreciation of Escoffier, Vol. 17, Issue 17

Delving into Georges Auguste Escoffier, the biography of the great European chef by two of his disciples, Eugene Herbodeau and Paul Thalamas, Etiquetteer was deeply impressed by their account of Escoffier's insistence on Perfect Propriety among his staff, and especially in his kitchens. They even cite this as one of his greatest reforms. Now we all know that hotel and restaurant kitchens are among the most stressful work environments possible. Hourly and less, tight deadlines as well as perfection are demanded - and yet how often do we think of those two things as mutually exclusive! Escoffier brought needed reforms, including worker respect.

The pre-Escoffier environment painted by the authors betrays a wood- and coal-stoked Hell filled with the clashing aromas of cooking, where overheated chefs blasted by heat, slake their perpetual thirst with liquor and pollute the surrounding air barking profanities at underlings. To prevent kitchen drinking, Escoffier devised, with a doctor, a barley drink that was available to all the kitchen staff. None of his staff could drink alcohol on the job.

"Intemperance," as the authors continue, "also provoked vulgarity . . . Escoffier was far too conscious of human dignity to allow such practices to continue." Etiquetteer doubts that he had to resort to a swear jar to get his staff to clean up their tongues, but imagines this might have taken some time. Those who needed their mouths washed out with soap would be taken aside and told "Here you are expected to be polite. Any other behaviour is contrary to our practice . . . " Etiquetteer just loves that, contrary to our practice. So dignified and so clear!

But surely, one wonders, M. Escoffier Himself couldn't possibly keep an even temper in a busy kitchen, could he? "Escoffier was a great believer in the virtue of calm," but when provoked past a certain point, he knew himself well enough to leave the room with a quiet "I am going out, I can feel myself getting angry." In a dispute between a hotel executive berating a cook to hurry a meal, and the cook who finally had enough and threw the executive's plate at him (thereby completely staining his clothes), Escoffier deplored the behavior of both, but sided with the cook, who was working at the proper speed.

Contrast this insistence on calm to produce good food, the best food, with today's celebrity chefs fostering climates of abuse in their restaurants and TV shows like Top Chef where the abuse of contestants is considered part of the entertainment. Etiquetteer is encouraged that so many waitresses, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, are now suing their employers over workplace misbehavior. But change requires more than lawsuits. It requires leadership like M. Escoffier's - leadership by example. In the 21st century workplace, whether a professional kitchen or an office, we need to do better.


Random Issues, Vol. 17, Issue 16

Etiquetteer hasn't tossed together a good salmagundi column in awhile, so let's look at some Random Issues of Perfect Propriety.

In the world of social media, it's not uncommon to find that a "friend" on one platform has blocked you on another platform. Yes, this can give you a jolt and cause you to question your value to this "friend," or even to speculation about what's being hidden. Don't fly into a temper about this, or spiral down a Wormhole of Self-Doubt or something. This is not Rejection, or even anything Remotely Sinister. This person is simply (albeit clandestinely) expressing the wish to interact with you on a particular platform rather than on others. And that's Perfectly Fine.


Not long ago a colleague expressed astonishment at seeing Etiquetteer wearing a necktie instead of a bow tie - a rare day indeed! "But you never wear a bow tie with a button-down collar," Etiquetteer responded. But is that really so? Etiquetteer had merely taken this Received Wisdom as Gospel Truth. The search for chapter and verse, to Etiquetteer's chagrin, didn't exactly make things clearer. Etiquetteer's vintage copy of Esquire's Etiquette for Men didn't clear up the point, but made Etiquetteer long for a world before Casual Friday. The Bow Tie Guy makes some valuable points in comparing shirt collars, but his main point is that a bow tie should obscure the collar points regardless of the type of shirt worn. The Bow Tie Guy strongly recommends a spread collar, but the button-down collar gets only a weak "okay, not optimal, but okay" endorsement.


Last month Etiquetteer was so delighted to host an etiquette dinner for the MIT Division of Student Life's "How to Adult" series of events. One of the memorable, heart-warming moments of the evening came when Etiquetteer realized that not one of these college students had put a smartphone or any other Personal Device on the table!


Saint Patrick's Day is almost here, which is a good time to remind gentlemen "of the Oscar Wilde Sort" that Oscar popularized the green carnation as a boutonniere. Wear yours with a difference!

Achoo! The Art of the Sneeze, Vol. 17, Issue 14

A reader took care to make sure that Etiquetteer read this recent New York Times article about how "cough etiquette" has undergone a change since the turn of the millennium*. What change, you ask? The direction to sneeze into one's elbow instead of a Perfectly Proper handkerchief held in one's hand.

And why has this happened? Science, fear, and change. Science has shown us that germs are spread by one's nasal effluvia, even when it's microscopic droplets of moisture. Fear of germs, especially after worldwide health scares, led to the promotion of the new elbow sneeze or "Dracula sneeze." And Etiquetteer has not failed to notice the growing bias against handkerchiefs in favor of packets of disposable tissues, or one's sleeve, which is Most Unfortunate. In moments of High Dudgeon, Etiquetteer often paraphrases Mary Bland in Eating Raoul: "Casual Friday! Just look what it's brought us!"**

Etiquetteer can just hear the chorus of Indignant Readers fulminating against the unsanitary nature of a keeping a cloth containing one's nasal effluvia in a pocket and reusing it. Etiquetteer considers that much, much less unsanitary than sneezing a big old gobbet of nasty glutinous phlegm onto your sleeve, and then having everyone have to look at it, or its glistening stain, for the rest of the day. Faugh! Is this really a risk you want to take? Etiquetteer has seen it happen, and it's really gross. Much better to use a handkerchief or a disposable tissue that is disposed of at once.

Etiquetteer cannot remember who said "The best place for a handkerchief is in your hand three seconds before you need it." It's still true, but not always easy to arrange. But even more important is the message at the end of that news article: “Hand washing is one of the most important things people can do to keep healthy,” according to Dr. Vincent Hill of the Centers of Disease Control. Which could only lead Etiquetteer to remind you of the wisdom of the late Professor Clyde Crashcup, who said with memorable relish, "Cleanliness is next to friendliness!"


*Indeed, the reader took care to quote the article: ". . . the term 'cough etiquette' first turned up in 2000."

**At times like that Etiquetteer has clearly Gone Round the Bend and often needs to lie down with a cold compress.

From the Daily Life of Etiquetteer, Vol. 17, Issue 13

Etiquetteer doesn't often discuss the personal difficulties of daily life in the city, but on a Not Good Very Bad Day some time ago* not one but two Tests of Perfect Propriety presented themselves. Candidly, Etiquetteer didn't quite come out of either of them with a passing grade.

Sometimes the most savory delights of the table are the riskiest to eat, and this particular day Etiquetteer was nearly conquered by a "Black and Bleu" cheeseburger while lunching at a Popular Sports Bar.** You know there's going to be trouble when, as soon as the burger is lifted from the plate, its cheesy contents begin dribbling away. Trouble transformed into a Structural Integrity Issue this time, when the patty began to slip out, largely because the cook had put a slick of iceberg lettuce under the patty instead of on top of it, where Perfect Propriety dictates it belongs.

The most expedient way out of this mess was to remove the lettuce as discreetly as possible, and then finish eating as quickly as possible. It might also have been less obtrusive simply to abandon the bun and attack the burger with knife and fork. Etiquetteer kept wondering what Consuelo Vanderbilt would have done, having learned to eat with her back anchored to an iron rod, her head secured to it with a metal hoop. She probably wouldn't have ordered a burger in the first place.

The second situation could have been tragic. While waiting for the lights to turn at a busy intersection, Etiquetteer witnessed a Young Woman slurping on a gigantic soda walk into traffic despite the Unavoidably Obvious Don't Walk Sign. She made it through one lane, but then was nearly hit by a car! A driver had to stop short to avoid hitting her, missing her by only a few inches. Etiquetteer was enraged - not only that this Young Woman walked out into traffic in the first place, but that she clearly had no concern about the impact her actions had on others. So upset was Etiquetteer that words just popped out: "The sign said Don't Walk!" She smirked and walked on, leaving Etiquetteer to wonder when the Darwin Awards would next be given out, and whether or not she'd be a nominee. That said, it's Most Improper to comment on the behavior of strangers in public. This was one occasion when Etiquetteer didn't set the most Perfectly Proper example.

*"All right, maybe it was quite a few years ago," as Norma Desmond might say. Etiquetteer can refer to it now because the emotional scars have healed.

**Etiquetteer can just hear himself saying "We don't have these problems at the opera," but then there's no Popular Opera Bar nearby with a cheeseburger for lunch, either.

Random Queries, Vol. 17, Issue 9

Dear Etiquetteer:

How can black bridesmaids' dresses be outlawed?

Dear Outlawing:

We live in a nation of freedoms, which has many undeniable advantages. Alas, one of them is not Freedom from - well, Etiquetteer won't say Bad Taste, but Unconsidered Taste. Were Good Taste to be legislated, we would no longer be a Nation of the Free. Etiquetteer considers that a better approach is for the Perfectly Proper to set the Best Example through their own daily lives. Etiquetteer rather feels that the fashion for Bridesmaids in Black is already passing, much as other bridal fashions have. And the sooner the better.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Not long ago at a party someone became fascinated by my perfume and kept asking me what it was. Aside from feeling that the question was inappropriate, I always thought a lady never told what her perfume was. Am I right?


Dear Scented:

Before addressing your sensibly query, allow Etiquetteer to observe that the word perfume is considered "Non-U" but the word scent is "U." You may want to check out the glossary of U and Non-U words for Handy Future Reference.

Traditionally a lady never reveals her scent because it deprives her of mystery. This would also imply that one doesn't wear enough that it might be identified. A Perfectly Proper scent calls attention to its wearer, not to itself.

The question within your query, though, is whether or not someone should even ask what one's scent is. After consideration, Etiquetteer is inclined to say not. This is in no small part because it might lead one to fret that one has put on too much and smells like a House of Ill Fame. Just consider poor Charlotte Vale in the novel Now Voyager, writhing in agony when Jerry notices that she is wearing the scent he gave her. Poor, poor Charlotte . . . so no, this is not the sort of question a gentleman asks a lady, nor is it the sort that one confirmed bachelor asks another.


New Neighbors, Vol. 17, Issue 8

Dear Etiquetteer:

My husband and I recently moved into a house in a small, and what we understand to be a relatively close-knit, neighborhood. In an earlier era neighbors might introduce themselves to newcomers with the stereotypical casserole or pie, but that era has passed. Accepting this, but wanting to be friendly neighbors, what might be a Perfectly Proper way(s) for us to take the initiative and introduce ourselves other than waiting for random chance such as shoveling snow at the same time? Or are proactive gestures considered too intrusive today, and waiting for
shoveling-type scenarios is the wiser course?

Dear Moved:

Etiquetteer was about to say that queries like yours recalled the days of the Welcome Wagon, when the burden of introductions fell on established residents rather than on newcomers. But when you read the history, that turns out to be a wee bit mythical; the Welcome Wagon hostesses weren't actually neighbors, but paid employees of Welcome Wagon International. So never mind about that. Back in the Dear Dead Days Beyond Recall, when visiting cards were in use, it was expected that established residents would pay a first call (also known as "leaving cards") on new neighbors, and that those calls would be returned within a limited time frame, usually something like a week. (And if no further acquaintance was desired after these initial introductions, so be it.)

Etiquetteer thinks you are wise to take the initiative now rather than waiting to be thrown together during a weather-related crisis. One thinks of the English guests of the Pensione Bertolini in Forster's A Room With a View, of whom he wrote "Generally at a pension people looked them over for a day or two before speaking, and often did not find out that they would 'do' till they had gone." In urban environments in can take years to meet neighbors, and then more years to get on speaking terms. What's that Old Joke about the two Englishmen marooned on an island for three years, who never spoke to each other because they hadn't been properly introduced?

We can do better than that. And since you recognize that waiting for a line of casseroles at your front door is No Longer the Way, we're off to a good start. Finding a balance between being considered pushing and standoffish is the real key here. Present, but not omnipresent. Pleasant, but not obsequious.

Here dog owners have the advantage. Doggie's walk four or five times a day will inevitably invite Sociable Contact with Other Dogs and Their Owners. If you have a dog, you've won half the battle already. If not, instituting a Daily Constitutional at l'heure des chiens may create an opening for you. It helps enormously if you like dogs. Otherwise, grin and bear it until you've met your neighbors, then change your walking hours.

The first time you and a new neighbor make eye contact - while you're unloading the moving van, even, or going out to the mailbox - walk over and introduce yourself. Be forthright, but not too famliiar. Invite them over for coffee once you're settled in. Ask about neighborhood hot spots and how to get engaged in the community. Ask about how long they've lived there and what they like about the neighborhood. So many people enjoy the thrill of power when appealed to, more likely than not your new neighbors will appreciate your initiative.

Otherwise, by all means bake the cakes yourself and bring one to your neighbors on each side of your new home. If the community is as close-knit as you say, the word will spread that the New People Will Do.

Etiquetteer wishes you and your husband a long, happy, and Perfectly Proper domestic life in your new home.

A 17th Anniversary Best of Etiquetteer

The end of January unofficially marks the launch of the Etiquetteer website, so why not just celebrate all 17 years with a toast? Thank you, readers and viewers!

To observe the occasion, a few "Best of Etiquetteer" selections:

"Gaping Maw of Bridal Need:" "So many brides believe all they have to do is receive, receive, receive (but not in a receiving line): receive congratulations, receive compliments, and especially receive gifts gifts gifts (but only from the registry that has been shamelessly advertised) and money. And that they don't have to GIVE anything but orders: orders to give parties, orders to buy gifts, orders to buy ugly dresses, orders to lose weight, orders constantly to satisfy the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need."

'Quagmire of Specificity:" "There's nothing to stop you from replying "And a Merry Christmas to you!" What Etiquetteer finds tedious is lengthening what is supposed to be a brief greeting -- "Merry Christmas!" "And a happy holiday to you, too!" --  into a drawn-out discussion about what holidays one does or does not celebrate and why. It doesn't matter! Can't you all just wish each other well without getting lost in a Quagmire of Specificity?"

Look at the Eyes: "Etiquetteer has heard from enough ladies to know that too many men would rather look at other parts of them than their faces. Left to their own devices, lanyards can hang anywhere from directly over the bosom to dangling below the navel, providing too much opportunity for Inappropriate Appreciation. A lady's eyes are not down there. A lady's eyes are not down there. Look up at the eyes, and keep looking there!"

"STAR SIX!" "Know your mute button. Background noise where you are is magnified on a conference call, and has the power to drown out the words of other participants. If you aren't speaking, mute your phone. Unmute when you wish to speak."

"Potential of One's Largesse:" "There's a difference between a strictly social invitation and an invitation to a fund-raiser. One is invited to the first solely for the pleasure of one's company, but to the latter for the potential of one's largesse."

"It's a Machine, Not a Coat Rack:" "It's a machine, not a coat rack. Don't leave your stuff about on those Weightlifting Things. Especially don't try to "reserve" one by hanging a hoodie or a towel over it. This inevitably leads to confusion and a lot of tiresome Alpha Male Posturing."

Gaping Maw of Bridal Need II: "You invite friends (or the friends of your parents) to a wedding for the pleasure of their company, not because you expect them to cover the costs of their own entertainment."

Don't see your favorite? Review the index to find it, and then by all means send Etiquetteer an email to ask about writing another favorite column on a Topic of Your Choice.

How to Host a Poverty Pasta, Vol. 17, Issue 5

After Sunday's review of Brunch Is Hell, which advocates a dinner party renaissance but with a more relaxed vibe, Etiquetteer got to thinking about how That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much puts together a Poverty Pasta Dinner. Etiquetteer first suggested this type of dinner party many years ago, but it's worth detailing the specifics now:

  1. Pick an evening (weeknight or weekend) that works on your calendar.
  2. Send an email invitation (bcc: everyone to prevent an email spiral needlessly involving those who decline) to an appropriate list that should generate at least two dinner guests but no more than seven - about 14 people. Include an R.s.v.p. date five days before the dinner date, and remind everyone that you'll assign ingredients to the final list of attendees.
  3. Remind non-respondents the day before the deadline that they need to respond.
  4. Three days before the dinner, assign ingredients to attendees: pasta, sauce, garlic bread, cheese, red wine. If there are enough people, add salad*, dessert*, and more red wine. (There can always be more red wine, no matter how many are coming.)
  5. Be sure to have backup ingredients in case someone forgets. You can't have a Poverty Pasta without any pasta!
  6. People will R.s.v.p. right up to the dinner hour. Assign them red wine.
  7. The night before, put a fresh tablecloth on the table, set out silverware, tumblers, and napkins. Set out necessary equipment in the kitchen: pasta pot, bread baskets (line with paper towels), cookie sheet for garlic bread, corkscrew, small bowls for cheese, water pitcher, and dinner plates.
  8. On the night of the dinner, fill the pasta pot with water and start it boiling as soon as you get home. Tidy public rooms.
  9. Remain calm while simultaneously answering the doorbell, texting directions to a lost guest, and opening the first bottle of red wine.
  10. As guests assemble, make sure everyone knows where the wineglasses are to fill their own, and draft a guest to fill the tumblers with water.
  11. Remind guests reluctant to drink red wine out of champagne flutes when your birthday is.**
  12. Receive ingredients and prepare dinner. Wait to put the pasta in the water until all guests have arrived.
  13. Guests serve themselves when dinner is ready. Open seating (placecards at such a casual event would not be Perfectly Proper), but couples should avoid sitting together.
  14. When all are seated, make the traditional Poverty Pasta toast: "To Camaraderie and Thrift!"
  15. Keep an eye on who might need more ice water or wine and pass appropriate vessels as necessary.
  16. Encourage seconds if there's pasta left in the pot; you don't want all those leftovers.
  17. When it looks like all eating has ceased, begin clearing plates. This will prompt others to assist; don't discourage them.
  18. As conversation winds down, bid guests farewell.
  19. Roll up sleeves and begin washing dishes. (This step may precede #16 if guests linger too long.)

And that's it! Give it a shot if you need to inject some novelty (or economy) into your social life.

*The addition of salad or dessert automatically upgrades Poverty Pasta to Gentility Pasta.

**Not really. That is NOT Perfectly Proper.

Profanity, Vol. 17, Issue 3

Last week the President of the United States used a profanity to cast a racist slur on other nations. That report, already contested, caused Etiquetteer to think about the state of profanity in America today. It might best be embodied by these three quotations:

“There is nothing either bad or good, but thinking makes it so.”  - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

“The Tabasco sauce which an adolescent national palate sprinkles on every course in the menu . . . “ - Mary D. Winn (speaking of sex)

‘Freud found sex an outcast in the outhouse, and left it in the living room an honored guest.”  W. Bertram Wolfe (also obviously speaking of sex)

Profanity gets a lot more play than it used to, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A growing number of people just do not care about Traditional Bad Words (though a great many still do). For at least the last 40 years the Soiling Tide of Profanity has risen in American culture, so that now most Americans roll happily as pigs in a Mucky Surf of Linguistic Waste. Profanities appear on stationery, clothing, and Items of Daily Life. In the 21st century, use of alternate spellings to get around internet censorship (e.g. biatch) have almost become a cottage industry. Profanities are used in the titles and scripts of popular entertainments on a routine basis. Profanity has become inescapable. Etiquetteer rather longs for the curtain of asterisks that, while not really protecting us from the words themselves, at least protected us from actually seeing them.

This hasn’t just been due to the work of comics who “work blue” (and who are killingly funny). Indeed, Etiquetteer’s first encounter with casual profanity was seeing a “B*tch! B*tch! B*tch!” notepad at a gift shop in 1977, which means it must have been going on much longer. The beginning might be the use of the most necessary profanity ever, Rhett Butler’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” in Gone With the Wind. The phrase, the word, so completely defined the situation and the character that producer David O. Selznick fought the censors to keep it.

But the key to its effectiveness was its necessity! How many of us ask if profanity is necessary to the points we need to make, to the situations we need to describe, the emotions we need to express? Etiquetteer invites you, dear readers, to consider your own use of profanity in daily life. While profane words are often interjected in the heat of passionate discourse, might we not find a way to ask ourselves if they help or harm the situation?

What the events of last week showed us was that there’s a little-discussed double standard in American society, a group held to a higher standard than other citzens: leaders. Americans still expect leaders to behave better than other citizens, so that we can look up to them and use them as good examples and sources of pride. President Trump has consistently failed to behave to a higher standard. His comment cannot be trivialized as merely “he said a dirty word.” He expressed an abhorrent opinion using the most debased language. How on earth is it possible to look up to a man who refers to allied nations with a vulgar term for an orifice? And how on earth can anyone who believes that courtesy is important in daily life excuse it?

Does it justify a profane response, as Patti Lupone’s profane description of the President at the Tony Awards a couple days after the story broke? Etiquetteer would suggest that it doesn’t, even though a great many people share her opinion. Name-calling isn’t helping the situation.

Does it justify the press quoting the President accurately? News outlets have handled this in various ways. Some have used the word, others have used an abbreviated version (“S-hole”) others have used words to describe the word (e.g. “vulgar”), and still others have used the word, but downplayed it by burying it in their stories as much as possible. With the means of communication available in the 21st century, it might be naive to believe that “family newspaper” standards can still be applied. Etiquetteer can only be saddened that the national situation has come to the point where a major story about a sitting President concerns using a profanity to refer to allies.*

Freedom of Speech remains the greatest of American freedoms. To Etiquetteer that means that that freedom should be used responsibly**. More often than not, profanity does not contribute to responsible use of free speech.

Postscript: Now, those of you who know That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much personally may feel you’ve detected the Sulfurous Odor of Hypocrisy about this column. Everyone knows That Mr. Dimmick swears like a trooper with little provocation, and has since his Treacherous Teens. Etiquetteer is going to allow him to tell you himself about some Instances of Profanity that Did Not Help - but not today.

*A brief article on previous Presidential use of profanity may be found in Rolling Stone.

**Actually, Etiquetteer means that that freedom should be used with Perfect Propriety, but Etiquetteer also recognizes that true Freedom of Speech means the freedom to speak Improperly.

Winter Manners, Vol. 17, Issue 2

Winter - especially an urban winter - can corrode our manners the same way that salt corrodes our shoes and our vehicles. No greater challenge to Wintertime Perfect Propriety can be seen than in the Bostonian battle of on-street parking spaces fought with "space savers." Usually derelict kitchen chairs but often other domestic detritus like old ironing boards, car owners who have shoveled out their cars from on-street parking spaces plant a space saver in the space so that they can benefit from their labor. Some drivers believe they should benefit from their labor until the final flake of snow has melted (for instance, Mother's Day).

Justifiable Resentment smoulders on both sides of the debate. Drivers with no place to park understandably believe that everyone should have a shot at what is, after all, a public street. Shovelers understandably believe that Hard Physical Labor entitles them to an exclusive claim on the space they cleared themselves for their own benefit, not that of others. The solution of a guarantee of space usage for a finite period (e.g. two to seven days) seems reasonable to everyone but most Shovelers, who will be satisfied with nothing less than permanent guaranteed on-street parking and the destruction of their enemies by fire and the sword.

Etiquetteer sympathizes with both sides, but has to draw the line at the intimidation, threats, and violence that flare out over saved parking spaces. Leaving notes threatening destruction of person and/or property on a space saver is bad behavior. Breaking someone's jaw is not just bad behavior, it's illegal and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Leaving candy and a cute poem is more Perfectly Proper, but it's still a space saver.

Unfortunately these battles rarely generate enough heat to melt the offending snow. They only char our hearts into briquettes of hatred. One has only to read the comments sections of any of the articles linked above to learn that. And speaking of comments, let's just retire that "If you don't like it, move" idea. That is simply not practical for 98% of the people engaged in the battle. What everyone seems to agree on, including Etiquetteer, is that the city needs to improve its snow-removal operation drastically. Now.

These battles also obscure Acts of Winter Kindness that need to be celebrated and encouraged. Only this morning Etiquetteer witnessed a driver postpone making a left turn to allow a Nervous Pedestrian to cross the street without slipping on the ice. And then there's the man who stepped uncomplainingly into a snowbank to allow a woman with a baby stroller to pass along a narrowly-shoveled sidewalk. Winter is a test of Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer wants desperately for you to pass the test.