SP has been hitting the jackpot of dinner parties lately. Is it the same in your world? Is it because of the economy? Are people dining in more? Have you noticed? Or is it that the circle I find myself in has suddenly become gourmet? Whatever the reason, you will hear no complaints from this corner on the occasion of a great meal that does not begin in a can or a box. Last Friday’s invitation was proffered with a very clear “casual dinner at home” directive. Our little party (there were only five of us) gathered for drinks, incredible food, wonderful company and as always, stimulating conversation. As you might imagine being the one at table who happens to hold forth on matters of etiquette, SP’s presence sparks many a conversation as to proper this and proper that. SP does not initiate these discussions mind you, they spring up organically. I swear.
There are so many rules – and misinformation – when it comes to the art of dinner that it is no wonder we feel flummoxed. The etiquette books are not helpful, bombarding us with so many rules we come away perplexed and end up not retaining much. Forget the internets. There is an opinion or rule coming from every nook and cranny. And they are w-r-o-n-g. To that end, let us limit this ditty to the rules we use on a daily basis. The finer points can be discussed later. How about it?
So there we are, back at the table with the meal winding down and the conversation ginning up. Would anyone care for another glass of wine? Dessert? A comment is made regarding the difference in American versus Continental table rules. A frivolous distinction, you may say, but it got me thinking of the larger picture and the state of our civility. This is important. Listen up. It matters not if you are attending a formal dinner at the White House, a wedding reception in an exclusive club, a lunch or dinner in a restaurant, a fancy dinner party or just spending an evening with good friends gathering for a casual night in. Whether you are trying to impress a girl, a boy, the parents, your boss or business associates, whomever, people will notice these seemingly trifling things and they will judge you. SP won’t, but people will. You see, these snoots aren’t as forgiving as SP. I want you to succeed. So stop moaning and listen up.
Forthwith, the rules.
When to begin. This seems to be one that many people are confused about. The one that says no one eats until all are served. This is simply not true. Once two have been served, you may begin. A friend of mine puts it thus, “When two have seats, all may eat.” I don’t know what the hell that means, but it does put people at ease. In restaurants, this can feel awkward as you wait for the food to come out together. But nevertheless, you would be correct in eating. And your well-mannered companions should insist that you begin. Who wants to eat hot food cold?
During the meal the fork should be placed in the middle of the plate with the handle to the right and just over the edge of the plate when not in use. The knife will rest at the top third of the plate with the handle and the knife point touching the edge. Never put a utensil on the table cloth once it has been used.
Never leave a spoon in the soup dish. When you have finished or are taking a break from the soup, place the spoon on a soup plate, or in the absence of such, on your main plate. To repeat, never put a used spoon on the table and do not leave it sitting in the bowl. Another fine point, when eating soup always push the spoon away from you, as in “the ship goes out to sea” not toward you.
Napkin in your chair. Your napkin stays in the seat of your chair if you leave the table during the meal. In fancy restaurants, the waiter will come by in your absence and refold the napkin and place it beside your plate. This annoys me a bit, but that’s the way it goes. Never leave a dirty napkin on the table in sight of other dinner guests. When the meal is finished, place the napkin to the left of your plate – or in the center if the plate has been cleared. Do not refold it.
Removing a bad bite. If you find something wrong with the bite in your mouth – gristle, bone, what have you – remove it the same way it went in: with your fork. It isn’t easy. It isn’t graceful. Just do it. And do it smoothly, quietly, unobtrusively, with no fuss. Wait until the conversation turns away from you and pull this maneuver as nonchalantly as possible. Return the food to your plate, disguised beneath the radishes so no one can see it. Do not spit it into your napkin unless there is some extreme reason and if it’s that extreme, excuse yourself.
After the meal. When you have finished eating place the fork and the knife in the 4:20 position (shown above) or across the middle of the plate, parallel to the edge of the table with the handles to the right and ending on the edge, not hanging over. Either way is correct. The fork will be nearest you with the tines turned up. The sharp side of the knife points toward you as well. Why, you ask, is this important? Because this simple universal act signals to the staff, waiter or otherwise, that you have finished your meal. Then why is this important when dining at home? Because practice makes perfect and this should become a second nature habit. On the Continent across the pond the tines are turned down at meal’s end. SP once affected this method — along with a couple of other European rules — when I returned from a trip abroad while in high school. My aunt — a stickler for perfect table manners — stopped in mid-conversation to ask what I was doing. I replied that this was the way people did it in Europe. She responded with a terse, “Well, we are not in Europe.” I have never strayed since.
There you have it. This may seem persnickety and well, it is I must admit. But learn it. Practice it. Be it. You will be a better man in the end. Isn’t that what you wanted all along?