Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Place Setting

Once you are seated, a bewildering display of stuff will undoubtedly confront you. What faces you is an organized table, not a malicious rebus designed to befuddle you. Think of a place setting as a chart—a chart that will guide you safely through the meal.
First, look at the silverware, also known as flatware. Start at the outside and move inward as the courses arrive. Accordingly, you can usually tell the number of courses to be served by taking a good look at the flatware. (At a very formal dinner, however, the server might replace the flatware before serving each course.)
You’ll probably see the following arrangement:
  • Knives and spoons are on the right.
  • Forks and napkins are on the left.
  • Glassware/crystal is on the right.
  • Side plates, such as a salad plate or bread-and-butter plate, are on the left. Now you are master of the universe, Arthur of the Round Table. As each course comes and goes, you will remain relaxed and confident. And, having solved the place-setting rebus, the basic rules of dealing with silverware are easy to master:
  • After you pick up a piece of silverware, it never touches the tabletop again.
  • You do not “tip” or lean silverware against your plate. Instead, place the knife and fork right on the plate when you’re not using them. Make sure that the blade of the knife always faces you.
  • Spoons used for coffee or tea belong on the saucer beside the cup.

Braving the Baffling Banquet

You are attending an awards banquet or a wedding or the final function of a weeklong conference at the Grand Hotel in a distant city. The room is a sea of linen and candles. There are dozens of round tables, and each is supposed to seat—somehow—10 people. The place settings seem to be jammed together. One set of cutlery blends into the next. There are too many dishes and glasses, and far, far too many people at the table. Stay calm. Continue to breathe normally. You can handle this, one step at a time.
First, find your table. Then find the place card with your name on it. Never, ever, ever, rearrange place cards to suit yourself. To do so is a major breach of etiquette. Somebody gave considerable thought to the seating, probably taking into consideration factors such as familiarity and status—within the society, family, company, or institution.
For example, it would be a bad idea to move your place card next to the host, just because you’re friends. You’re likely to unseat the guest of honor. (Tampering with the place cards is even ruder on private social occasions because the host has given careful thought to the seating arrangement and will not be happy if you try to second-guess him or her.)
Before you sit down at your table, introduce yourself to any dining companions you don’t know and say hello to those you do. Here’s an opportunity to make a positive impression on your fellow diners by taking the initiative to meet them and shake their hands. If you simply sit down, you risk having to shout your name across the centerpiece to people who, if they can hear you, won’t remember what you said.
Enter your chair from the left side. Men, it is neither sexist nor theatrical for you to draw out the chair for the woman on your right. Women, accept such a gesture.

Continental vs. American Style

In our shrinking world, we often see people using the continental or European style of dining, as well as the more familiar (to most of us) American style. Both are perfectly correct, and neither is preferable to the other. What’s important is being consistent and being correct in whichever style you choose. After it is mastered, the continental style is far more graceful and efficient, so it is well worth learning. (Children, by the way, often get the hang of this style of dining more easily than adults do.)
When knives and forks became popular in Europe in the early seventeenth century, most people probably used them in much the same way as Americans do now. Only later did the upper classes in Europe begin using what is now known as the continental style and the practice spread—but not, obviously, to America.
American style. The knife is used for cutting only. It is held in the right hand (for right-handers) while cutting, and the fork is held in the left hand to help control the object being cut. The knife is then put down on the edge of the plate (blade facing in), and the fork is switched to the right hand to lift the cut piece to the mouth. The tines of the fork face upward when bringing food to the mouth. Hands are in the lap when not being used.
Americans are the only people in the world who use this basically inefficient style of dining. Continental style. The knife remains in the right hand and the fork in the left. After the food is cut, the knife is used to push it onto the fork. The prongs of the fork face downward when the cut food is lifted to the mouth unless the type of food—peas or creamed food, for example—requires a different tactic. The hands remain above the table from the wrist up when they are not in use.
Small forks for eating were first used in the eleventh century in Tuscany. Prior to that and for some time after, people ate with their hands. They separated their meat by tearing it with their hands or cutting it with knives and using their fingers to pick at it. Some historians attribute the more refined use of eating utensils to Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VII of France and Henry II of England. Eleanor is credited with initiating and encouraging many chivalrous and courtly customs.
Dining skillfully and enjoyably takes homework and practice. The good news is that it’s not brain surgery, and anybody can do it. Most people take dining skills for granted until it’s too late. But, just as nobody ever learned to ride a bike by reading a book, actual experience is necessary for you to become a poised, informed, and confident dining companion.
Bonne chance and bon app├ętit!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fruit Eating Tips

  • Avocados. If the avocado is still in its shell, use a spoon. If in pieces on a plate, use a knife and fork.
  • Berries. Eat berries with a spoon if they are served with no stems attached. If served with their stems, hold the berry by the stem and eat it in one or two bites after dipping the berry into sugar or sauce.
  • Grapefruit halves. Section grapefruit halves so that the meat is accessible without a lot of digging. Eat the sections with a spoon and never squeeze the juice.
  • Lemon wedges. Handle lemon wedges with care. You can secure them with a fork and squeeze with the other hand or, if you pick up a wedge to squeeze between the fingers, use the other hand as a “squirt shield” so that the diner beside you doesn’t get an eyeful of lemon juice.
  • Oranges and tangerines. Either peel oranges and tangerines with a knife or with your fingers and then eat them section by section. If served on a plate, eat them with a fork.
  • Peaches. Halve and then quarter peaches with a knife; then eat the fruits of this labor with a fork. You can either eat the skin or peel it off with a knife or your fingers.
  • Pineapple. You eat pineapple with a spoon when served in small pieces and with a fork when sliced.
  • Watermelon. If watermelon is served in small pieces, eat it with a spoon. Otherwise, use your fork. Put the seeds into the palm of your hand and transfer them to the side of your plate.

Eating Tips (Part 2)

  • Crabs. Eat crabs as you would lobster. See the following tips.
  • Lobsters. To eat a lobster requires a host of techniques. Start by cracking the shell with a nutcracker and then extract the meat with a seafood fork (that’s the tiny little thing with the three tines). If you pull out a large piece, cut it with a fork. Pull off the small claws and suck out the meat (there’s not much meat in them, but what’s there is sweet!) as if you were drawing liquid through a straw. Use your knife and fork to eat stuffed lobster.
  • Olives. Use the same technique with olives as you did with bacon, pickles, and celery. If the olive is pitted, eat it whole. If the olive is large and unpitted, hold it in your fingers and eat it in small bites, instead of popping the whole thing in your mouth and munching. As for the pit, kiss it into the palm of your hand then deposit it on the edge of your plate.
  • Pasta. Pasta comes in many different sizes and shapes, but you can basically divide them into the long and stringy type and the short and squat type. To eat long and stringy pasta, like spaghetti or linguini, it’s a good idea to avoid that business of twirling spaghetti with your fork into the bowl of a spoon. Instead, eat a few strands at a time, twirling them on your fork without the support of a spoon. Do not cut the strands with your knife. Small ziti, penne, and the like require only a fork.
  • Potatoes. The technique to use on a potato depends on how it is prepared. Eat the inside of a baked potato with a fork. If you want to eat the skin, cut it into manageable pieces with a knife and fork. Don’t try to convert your baked potatoes into mashed food. Cut fries in half and eat them with your fork.
  • Shrimp. If the tails are still attached, use your fingers. Eat shrimp cocktail with a seafood fork, dipping a shrimp into the sauce and popping it into your mouth in two bites if large. Better still, put them on a serving plate, spoon a little sauce on them, and then cut the shrimp with a knife and fork.
  • Tortillas. If you eat tortillas with your hands, start eating them at one open end, holding the other end closed. If they’re especially full and unwieldy, use a fork and knife and cut them crosswise, starting at an open end.

Eating Tips (Part 1)

  • Artichokes. Eating an artichoke requires a bit of an attitude and a little digital dexterity. Pick it up with one hand, remove one leaf at a time, and dip the soft end into the accompanying sauce. Then place the whole soft end in your mouth and pull (do not yank) it through your teeth to remove the edible part. Discard the rest by placing it on the edge of the plate or on a side plate—not your bread plate!—if one is available. When you’ve removed most or all of the leaves, you’ll reach the heart of the artichoke, which forms a firm center of meat. Use a knife to scrape the fuzzy part off and then cut the meat into bite-size pieces with the help of a knife and fork.
  • Avocados. See the following section on fruits.
  • Bacon. If the bacon is very crisp, you can eat with your fingers. Otherwise, use a knife and fork.
  • Cake. You can eat cake with your fingers if it’s in bite-size pieces. If it comes as a whole slice, if it’s sticky, or if it comes with sauce or ice cream, use both a fork and spoon. Hold the spoon in your right hand to scoop up the dessert. The fork goes in your left hand, and you use it as a pusher.
  • Caviar. To eat caviar, you first spread it on a bite-size piece of toast and then add any condiments, such as chopped onions or capers.
  • Celery, pickles, and radishes. To eat these fresh vegetables, remove them from the serving plate with your fingers and place them on the side of your dinner plate. Take small bites, using your fingers to bring the vegetables to your mouth.
  • Chicken and other fowl. Unless you’re at a picnic, you should eat chicken and turkey with a knife and fork.
  • Corn on the cob. Use both hands to eat an ear of corn. Butter and eat only a few rows at a time. You won’t encounter this food on formal occasions in America, and you won’t encounter it at all in Europe, where most people consider corn—and especially corn on the cob—to be food for livestock.

If anything go wrong

Having spent so much time talking about mistakes, it is important to point out that nothing as diverse as dining with a number of other people will ever be achieved with perfect serenity. Things go wrong, and when they do, you should react calmly and, if possible, cheerfully.

Let’s say you knock something over, break something, or drop something. The first thing to remember is that anybody can have an accident! Stay cool. Downplay the incident as much as possible. If you spill something, blot up what you can. In a restaurant, call the incident to the server’s attention—as unobtrusively as possible—and hand the server your napkin if it’s wet. If the person next to you is a victim of the accident, let him or her handle

Forbidden Table Manner Behaviors

Having dealt with the 10 biggest mistakes, we can move on to a list of little no-no’s—things not important enough to make the BIG list, but worth noting anyway. Even though common sense and a sense of courtesy may keep you from committing many of these errors, they bear repeating.
  • Don’t salt or otherwise season your food before you taste it. This behavior is particularly offensive when dining in someone’s home and the cook is sitting at the table. It’s also a bad idea in a restaurant, even though the chef can’t be insulted because he or she is in the kitchen.
  • Cut only enough food for the next mouthful.
  • If someone at the table takes a pill, don’t ask about it. If you must take medication at the table, don’t comment about it. No explanations are necessary.
  • Don’t dunk. Doughnuts don’t belong in coffee.
  • Don’t push your plate away and don’t push your chair back when you’ve finished eating unless you’re getting up from the table.
  • Never tilt your chair.
  • Always pass food to the right.
  • Don’t ask people where they’re going if they leave the table.
  • If you belch, cover your mouth with your napkin and say “Excuse me” to no one in particular.
  • Never crumble crackers in your soup or blow on any liquid that is too hot. Cool yourself until it cools.
  • Put butter first on your bread plate or dinner plate, not directly on the roll or other food.

10 Common Table Manner Mistakes

While reading this list, you may find that you’ve been a sinner in the past without ever realizing it. Don’t worry. Redemption is at hand. And you certainly aren’t alone. The sins detailed in the following list made the top 10 list only because so many people have committed them so often in the past.
  1. Cutlery. Don’t hold your fork like a cello or your knife like Lady Macbeth’s dagger.Also, don’t wave your cutlery triumphantly in the air to emphasize a point and don’t put silverware partly on the table and partly on the plate. After you pick up a piece of cutlery, it should never touch the table again. Knives go on the plate, blade facing in and touching the inside of the plate. Only the handle should rest on the rim of the plate.
  2. Napkins. Don’t blot or rub the lower half of your face. Dab delicately. Don’t flap your napkin to unfold it and don’t wave it around like a flag. It belongs unfolded on your lap. If you leave the table, place your napkin on the chair and push the chair back under the table. Gently. Watch the upholstery. Don’t refold your napkin at the end of the meal because an unknowing server might give it to another diner. Pick up the napkin from the center and place it loosely on the table to the left of your plate.
  3. Chewing. Never chew with your mouth open. Also, no matter how urgently you want to inject the perfect kernel of wit and wisdom at just the right moment, don’t do it with food in your mouth. And don’t gulp and blurt. Finish chewing, swallow, and smile philosophically, content in the knowledge that you could have said just the right thing, but had too much class to speak with food in your mouth.
  4. Appearance. Remember what your mother said: Sit up straight and keep your elbows off the table. If you have any doubt about where your hands belong, put them in your lap.
  5. Breaking bread. Here is a real bread-and-butter tip. Tear bread into bite-size pieces and butter each piece just before you eat it. Don’t butter the entire slice of bread or the entire roll to get it ready for occasional bites during the course of the meal.
  6. Speed. Take it easy. Whether you’re at the Ritz Carlton or Gertie’s Grease Pit, gulping down food is not only unhealthy but also unattractive, and it can cross the line into rudeness when dining with others. Dining partners should have the same number of courses and start and finish each one at about the same time. Don’t be huddling over your soup while others are salivating for dessert or vice versa.
  7. Don’t pick! If you have something trapped between your teeth, don’t pick at it while you are at the table. If it’s really driving you nuts, excuse yourself, go to the restroom, and pick to your heart’s content.
  8. Lipstick etiquette. Leaving a lipstick trail behind on stemware and flatware is bad form, especially at a business meal. If you apply lipstick in the restaurant and don’t have a blotting tissue with you, make a detour to the restroom or nab a cocktail napkin from the bar on your way to the table.
  9. Smoking. Even if you’re sitting in the smoking section of the restaurant, you should never light up between courses. It affects your dining partners’ taste buds and is a jarring note during any meal. Wait until the meal is over and, even then, ask if anyone minds if you smoke. If anyone does object, offer to wait or to smoke at the bar. And, please, never use a plate as an ashtray.
  10. Purses and briefcases. Keep them off the table. And this rule goes for keys, hats, gloves, eyeglasses, eyeglass cases, and cigarette packs. In short, if it isn’t part of the meal, it shouldn’t be on the table.

The Rough-and-Ready Pioneers

When the Americans, whose sinewy hands tamed a wild new continent and fashioned an industrial juggernaut, set out to acquire their own systems of courtesy and manners, they did so with characteristic vigor and a style that was by turns practical and quixotic, solemn and hilarious. These Americans came for the most part from Old World classes that were cut off from the customs of the “best” society, and many of them came to the New World because they despised the social rigors of European society. In the beginning, there was little time for contemplating the social graces. The struggle to conquer the wilderness was constantly renewed as American civilization marched toward the Pacific. Behind the westward-questing pioneers, the unceasing arrival of new hordes of immigrants kept conditions continually unsettled. Another major factor in pioneer life was the scarcity of women. In Europe, women were continually in the majority, and they were the makers and the guardians of the traditions of courtesy. In early America, women were a minority and, in fact, so scarce that men tended to treat them with something close to reverence and to compete in exaggerated and often comical politeness for their attention. Women were to be respected and protected and, if possible, pampered.

Poor Richard and George Washington on Manners

Early on, the government enforced minimal standards of civility through its laws, providing penalties for slandering, lying, cursing, and even flirting. Strictures came from the government and the clergy, and advice about proper—and legal!—behavior came from the authors of almanacs including Benjamin Franklin, who offered this advice in Poor Richard’s Almanac:
  • Fish and visitors stink after three days.
  • None but the well-bred man knows how to confess a fault, or acknowledge himself in error.
The few etiquette guides that were available tended to stick to the basics. A much reprinted eighteenth-century guide for children warned: “Spit not, cough not, nor blow thy nose at the table, if it may be avoided.” Adults were advised not to use the tablecloth to clean their teeth in George Washington’s Rules of Civility.

The Genteel South and the Robust North

As leisure and wealth increased, people wanted to know more about how to behave in a proper manner. The Southern plantation owners, sitting amid their productive fields and black vassals, and the prosperous merchants and tradespeople of the Northern port cities all sought a standard of decorum and even elegance that would better reflect their wealth and power. These wealthy planters looked about their own country in vain; then ultimately they looked back to England to find the literature of civility.
The English books imported by Americans weren’t even really English—they were very often translations, adaptations, or outright plagiarism of French works. Since the age of chivalry, France had been Europe’s chief instructor in matters of manners. Now the bookshelves of both the wealthy and the “wannabes” in the eighteenth century soon contained volumes dealing with specifics as to dress, dining, and deportment. According to these publications, the earmarks of a gentleman were not only probity (or moral uprightness), but also valor, piety, and justice. The gentlewoman was modest, meek, chaste, and compassionate.
The habit of Americans looking to England for printed politeness guides continued for about a half-century after the severing of political ties following the American Revolution in 1776.

The “American Ideal not that Gentlemen should Cease to Be.”

As Americans marched into the nineteenth century, they discarded many of the social forms and practices of the Old World as if they were garments that no longer fit the form for which they were tailored.
After defeating the British in the War of 1812, Americans expanded their territory to reach the Rio Grande and the Pacific. The creation of the railroad and the construction of waterways like the Erie Canal encouraged citizens to reach into the interior of the country, allowing new towns to spring up. Some of the towns grew into cities as new industries forever changed the nation’s landscape. Andrew Jackson, son of a destitute immigrant, moved into the White House in 1828, into an office previously held by the Harvard-educated Adamses and wealthy and powerful Virginia landholders. Ordinary people believed they could make themselves into whatever they wanted to be. The idea was that any man could become a gentleman—not that gentlemen should cease to be.
From the 1830s until the Civil War, Americans had their choice of homegrown etiquette advice books. In these we see a shift away from an emphasis on probity, valor, modesty, and compassion and a move toward the view that etiquette is a set of rules to be learned. Americans did not want to be lectured to about character, chivalry, and morality. They wanted to learn the rules of behavior that would enable them to move comfortably in high society.
Some of this advice came tongue-in-cheek:
  • Always keep callers waiting, till they have had time to notice the outlay of money in your parlors.
  • Always whisper and laugh at concerts by way of compliment to the performers and to show your neighbors a sovereign contempt for their comfort.
The emphasis shifted away from being meek, pliant, and weak and toward more strength and independence. One author advised bluntly that crying was no longer fashionable.
Etiquette “experts” in journals and books advised Americans to avoid “the stiff and stately pomp” of manners honed in European courts. In 1851, Nathaniel Willis wrote, “We should be glad to see a distinctively American school of good manners, in which all useless etiquettes were thrown aside, but every politeness adopted or invented which could promote sensible and easy exchanges of good will and sensibility.” And he advised getting rid of “imported superfluities.”

The Four Hundred: Rockefeller, Carnegie,Vanderbilt

Following the Civil War, Americans entered the era of robber barons, steel and railroad magnates, merchant princes, and Napoleons of finance. Along came John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1866, Scientific American reported that the number of men in New York whose annual income reached $100,000 exceeded the number of men whose entire possessions amounted to as much just 25 years before. Indeed, a new nobility was created, putting to shame the old English “parchment nobility” in terms of wealth and extravagance. Newspapers and magazines of the period dubbed the most prominent leaders of this new nobility “the Four Hundred.”
These new plutocrats—some coming from the humblest beginnings—destroyed the old simplicities of American society. The suddenly rich burst upon the social scene with absurdities of conspicuous consumption and, in the process, re-created the American social scene. Some observers viewed this development with alarm. Author and critic E. L. Godkin wrote in 1896, “We are about to renew on this soil, at the end of the nineteenth century, the extravagances and follies of the later Roman Empire and of the age of Louis XIV.”
Another observer lamented that “the sham aristocracy indulge in mushroom manners.” (Mushrooms are showy but of little consequence.)
Of course, the masses could not match the gyrations of the Four Hundred but did follow their activities avidly, mostly through the “society” columns of the newspapers. The desire to learn “the rules” that governed the gatherings of these almost mythical figures became, perhaps, more widespread than ever. Magazines, particularly women’s magazines, devoted space to “deportment departments.” Newspapers began running etiquette columns, and advice to the lovelorn columns also often included advice on proper, or at least acceptable, behavior.

Conspicuous Consumption

The etiquette scribes of the “conspicuous consumption” period took the position that they were helping to instill a more aristocratic style of behavior, one that was more in tune with the improving fortunes of the middle class. There was something of a backlash to this. Before long, critics began to cry out against this wave of “artificial refinement.” To these critics, Appleton’s Journal replied in 1871, “Is it not better to carry punctiliousness a little too far than continually to be sinning against those minor morals on which the pleasure of intercourse so much depends?” “Punctiliousness” was much in evidence. On crossing the street, a lady was to “gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle.” When bowing, the head was to be bent, and “a mere lowering of the eyelids” was rude. Formal calls were to last no longer than 15 minutes. One was never to “emphasize a point with a touch of the foot.” Men were not supposed to smoke in the presence of women, and women were not supposed to smoke at all.
The dining room became an arena for conspicuous consumption with what was described as a bewildering display of goblets, plates, and silverware. The etiquette of the ballroom was complex and severe. Formal introductions were imperative, and the style and form of the dances themselves were strictly prescribed.

The New Nobility

The etiquette strictures of the post–Civil War era began to loosen after the turn of the century in the following ways:
  • The pace of life began to mitigate against extravagantly ceremonious occasions.
  • The mere possession of wealth lost some of its glamour and even the “best” families began to eschew ostentation.
  • Women became more socially and financially independent and found new interests (particularly sports) apart from the society scene.
The years after World War I saw an even more pronounced drift away from what began to be considered, somewhat contemptuously, Victorian manners. The movies, the automobile, the radio, and the forbidden-fruit syndrome that accompanied Prohibition had a profound influence on behavior, and finally the Great Depression seemed to wash away the last of the old ways.
Although the American thirst for advice on behavior remained unquenched, its form was altered greatly. Emily Post and, to a greater extent, Lillian Eichler gave advice that was practical, straightforward, and much less doctrinaire and accusatory than the pronouncements of the etiquette doyennes of previous eras.
There seemed to be a national consensus that appropriate behavior could be simpler, more spontaneous, and more genuine.

The Fit-in ’50s and the Rebellious ’60s

Nobody can claim that Americans were not concerned with correct behavior during the 1940s and 1950s. Having good manners, fitting in, dressing right, and being part of the crowd were vitally important. Advice columns and magazine features on proper behavior remained popular, although the approach was perhaps more chatty than instructional.
Then came the 1960s, with hippies, the drug culture, long hair, shorter dresses, denim, and disobedience. There was a pronounced decline in the popularity of books and magazine articles written on etiquette. Etiquette became a word seldom heard except in jest. In an era of rebellion, etiquette was deemed unworthy even of protest. But even during these years, when “being real” achieved something of a cult status, experts on etiquette emerged and were at least consulted if not honored. The decades since the massive upheaval of the 1960s have brought enormous changes to our society, particularly the struggle against discrimination based on gender and race, and the electronic revolution. As the globe continues to shrink, as people from all backgrounds and cultures are thrown together as never before, and as computers change the way we communicate, civility—not chivalry—will be the mark of a sophisticated citizen in the twenty-first century.

Where We Are Now and How We Got Here

Through all of the changes and crises that have molded American society over the years, a willingness and even an eagerness to accept information and advice about behavior has remained. It has been called etiquette, manners, courtesy, or just “behaving yourself.” But it has endured as a continuing reflection of the desire of an essentially good-natured and vital people to exist harmoniously with those around them.
And now, in the twenty-first century, this desire for knowledge and advice on behavior continues, but the wish to acquire information about etiquette is more sharply focused than ever before. Career-oriented people have come to realize that people skills equal or surpass technical skills in importance. The social scene is very often merged with the world of work. The boardroom, the marketplace, and the international stage have replaced the ballroom and the dining room as the arenas in which we are judged by our behavior.