Etiquetteer just held another etiquette dinner at MIT, as part of its How to Adult event series for students. The caterers devised a diabolical menu, with challenges at almost every step:
Italian Wedding Soup
Clear broth containing large pieces of floppy lettuce and meatballs
Statler Chicken with Tagliatelle Pasta Carbonara
Chicken including bones with long, thick, stringy pasta
Berry Crumble a la Mode
Blessedly easy to eat
A tasty challenge indeed! How does one handle those dripping pieces of lettuce, that endless ribbon of pasta, the chicken that is definitely not finger food? First off, a soup bowl is no place for a knife. If you can’t use the edge of your soup spoon to cut whatever’s in your soup to a manageable size, Etiquetteer recommends just leaving it in the bowl. Long stringy pasta is best twirled into a bite on the tines of a fork, as we know. But the trick is to keep from twirling the entire mass of pasta onto your fork, as well as keeping the ends from slipping off . . . or having the whole thing fall apart as you lift it to your mouth. It takes practice! While the students in this class acquitted themselves well, of course Etiquetteer could not help but the remember the charm school class in that marvelous Japanese film Tampopo:
As always, Etiquetteer was delighted with the questions that came in, including
Where do you put the hand you aren’t using to eat? The Western custom is to put it in your lap*, but two participants pointed out that in some Asian cultures, the tradition is to keep both hands in sight, to prove, as one said, that one isn’t concealing a weapon.
What do you do if you have to leave the table? Well, first of all, you try not to have to leave the table at all. But we all know that sometimes that’s unavoidable. The next thing is, don’t tell anyone why you’re leaving. In the last 40 years people have become very explicit about what they’re going to do when they leave the table. No one needs to know! The most that need be said is “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” If more people cultivated an air of mystery, we’d all be better off. Before you go, leave your napkin in your chair; leaving it on the table indicates that you aren’t returning.
Do you have to eat all your bread at once before you start on the first course? Bread accompanies a meal; it isn’t a course, but may be eaten with all courses before dessert (when the bread plates are taken away).
Is it all right to use a bit of bread to clean off the bottom of your soup bowl? This led to a spirited discussion about the pros and cons of dunking, which is still a bit controversial. For Etiquetteer, the more casual the meal, the more permissible dunking might be, but for professional or formal functions, it’s much less so. Emily Post Herself thought of dunking as a big no-no, but when cornered by the Associated Press, commented that she “couldn’t go against local custom” and “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”** And really, may you sop up the end of your soup with a bit of bread? At formal/professional functions, no, but at informal meals, use discretion. It’s interesting to note that for sopping up gravy on a plate, Mrs. Post would allow diners to drop a bit of bread onto the plate and then use a fork to push the bread around, not one’s fingers.
Etiquetteer also had to make the point that one does not gesture with utensils at the table. Good heavens, you might put someone’s eye out! Or, more likely, stain them with a gobbet of food or sauce flying off one’s fork. Stop it at once!
But the most important point to be made about table manners is that a meal, food, is just an excuse for conversation. Be prepared to talk with the people seated around you, especially if you don’t know them. If you do, find out discreetly what some common interests are. Look through the day’s news. Ask questions that will get more of a response than “Yes” or “No.”
And if you make a mistake, just keep going. Projecting an absence of anxiety about table manners is the most Perfectly Proper way to dine.
*Like a bunch of forgotten violets,” as Willa Cather suggested in her short story “The Old Beauty.”
**Etiquette, by Emily Post (1950), and Emily Post, by Laura Claridge.