I recently vacationed with my in-laws, a rather sophisticated set of Southern gentry. The hostess, my sister-in-law, served blue crab and flounder. Despite the oohs and aahs from my fellow partygoers I was petrified. So many shells, so many bones! I spent most of dinner with my fingers in my mouth fishing flounder bones from my throat. Etiquetteer, what should I have done?! I've spent my life with the rule, "If you feel as piece of gristle you take it out of your mouth the same way I put it in," but with SO many bones what is one to do?
Your question certainly emphasizes why Etiquetteer enjoys dishes like lobster Thermidor, which come without shells. (That would of course have nothing to do with the sherry cream sauce, nothing at all.)
Etiquetteer hopes it will relieve you to know that, in fact, your manner with all those unaccustomed crab shells and fishbones was Perfectly Proper - and authorities no less than Emily Post, Millicent Fenwick, and Lillian Eichler agree. You'll become more comfortable as you attempt more fish and crab in your home diet.
That lifelong rule you follow isn't entirely accurate. So very often what gets into your mouth is got there with a fork, and it is not Perfectly Proper to try to spit out a fishbone or a hunk of gristle, or anything unwanted, onto a fork to convey back to one's plate. Etiquetteer actually tried that once, as an experiment. Frankly, it's ridiculous, frustrating, time-consuming, and worst of all, attention-grabbing. Whatever comes out of your mouth should be clean; suck off every little bit of crabmeat before you remove that bit of shell. But Perfect Propriety indicates that diners eliminate everything that can't be swallowed before it gets into the mouth. You mention gristle; cut it away from that Tasty Morsel before lifting the fork.
The most important aspects of this type of operation are Discretion and the Appearance of Ease. Don't attract attention to yourself. Etiquetteer suspects that you might have magnified the discomfort of this situation just a wee bit with the desire to make a good impression on your in-laws and Do Your Beloved Proud. Take heart with these words from Lillian Eichler's Today's Etiquette of 1940:
"Well-bred people are accustomed to using the right knife or fork at the right time, and their manners - or manner - at table is characterized by a fine graciousness and ease that makes others feel at ease, too. They select the proper fork or spoon instinctively, without studied care, and if a blunder is made - why, let it pass! . . . if one's manner is free from self-consciousness and embarrassment, it is quite probable that no one will notice it.
"By this we do not mean that the new etiquette recommends carelessness . . . rather, careful attention to the niceties of dining and the little courtesies of the table, but combined with a carelessness of manner that suggests familiarity with these niceties. The way to achieve this poise or assurance is to practice the niceties and courtesies of dining in private . . . so that the correct thing becomes instinctive rather than studied."
But we are all often baffled about what to do when served something new, as you were with your sister-in-laws's dinner. Watch the video below to learn how Young Etiquetteer was taught to eat king crab legs by a cranky waitress.