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Etiquette: from soup to nuts; help, at last, for the formal diner who handles a fork as if he's spearing frogs and winds up the meal drinking from the finger bowl.


Yesterday, as I left the Owen County State Bank, I gallantly held the door for the woman behind me. Then I turned it over to a young man, who promptly let go of the door and knocked the old lady behind him halfway back to the loan department.

It happens in elevators, too. You can always tell one of us gentlemen from the "you" generation because we are the last in and the last out. But one of the "me" genre will be the first in, will punch the "close" button, will shove back the woman's head that's keeping the doors from shutting, and will be numero uno out when the elevator stops at his floor.

I know the rules have changed. But even in this enlightened era of equal rights, a man doesn't have the right to knock an old lady into the loan department.

Situations also arise, of course, for which no rules of etiquette have been established. You may remember the dinner party where the young man noticed that his pants were unzipped and that what he thought was his shirttail was sticking out. (Actually it was the corner of the tablecloth.) After he had surreptitiously stuffed the excess material in an zipped himself up as best he could, his girlfriend said she wanted to dance. In leaping to his feet to help her with her chair, he pulled the tablecloth, the dishes, and everything else onto the floor. It was said that he raced from the room, with the tablecloth dragging behind him, and was never seen again.

Closer to home, no rule of etiquette could have salvaged my mother the time dad brought home a surprise guest for dinner, soon after their marriage. Taking dad aside, mom explained that she had only one piece of pie and that he should decline the dessert invitation. But after the guest declined, dad saw no reason to do likewise. Then the guest saw the pie and said, "That looks pretty good. I believe I'll have a piece, after all." Mother went back into the pantry, climbed out the window, and was never seen again. We four kids were made in Taiwan.

Our purpose here is not to come up with a way out of such situations. For what will it profit a young man to be schooled in the refinement of handling a tablecloth caught in his fly when his table manners never got beyond the don't-scratch-your-head-with-your-fork stage? Instead, we will stick to the very basic of basics--the formal dinner party.

Rule No. 1: Be prompt in calling for your date. If he established time is 8:00 p.m., don't arrive at 8:05. That would give the baby a mere 55 minutes to drool on your lapel and the dog a like time to mistake your leg for a fire hydrant before your date emerges in all her glory.

Once you arrive at the spread, remember that dinner parties and wakes have little in common. You were not invited because the hostess thought you were suffering from kwashiorkor. You are there to be entertaining--without the aid of a whoopee cushion. And without stuffing the tablecloth into your fly.

Unlike meals at Joe's Hot Dog Heaven, formal dinners are eaten sitting down. Tradition thus calls for your to help the lady on your right to be seated. If she is already seated by the time you locate your place cardd (which, traditionally, you will find stuck to the bottom of the hard-roll basket), don't, for heaven's sake, ask her to stand up. Should she still be standing, how you push the chair up to her is all-important. Too slow, and she could miss altogether. Too fast, and the chair will catch her at the knee joints, and under the table she'll go.

Once seated, a young man at a loss for words will too often fill the hiatus by propping a spoon against a knife handle and trying to flip it into his water glass. This just isn't done. (I managed to do it once, but it takes a lot of practice.) If nothing else comes to mind, you can always start the conversation, if appropriate, by asking the woman why she has such weak knee joints. Counter-clockwise, if she didn't go under the table and you compliment her on her well-developed knee joints, this line of conversation could lead to anything from Jane Fonda's exercise book to the training manual of the U.S. Marine Corps. Or even to complete silence.

Whichever way it goes, seize the opportunity to survey the flatware (a.k.a. silverware) floor plan, or table plan, if you prefer. Some of it may be on the floor soon enough. Rules have changed some since my dad's era, of course. His only advice to me on the subject was, "If you are ever at a table where you have a choice of cutlery, take the one closest to you and put the others in your pocket." Today, when you're faced with a battery of eating utensils, propriety calls for beginning with the outside piece and working in--salad fork, fish fork, meat fork, and so on. Should you make a mistake, there are ways of covering it up. I've always had good luck twirling my napkin into the shape of a doll.

I nearly forgot about the napkin. You already know better than to tie it around your neck, to stuff it in your shirt, or to stick it under your belt. It is to be laid, instead, across your lap. The trouble is, the napkin isn't made that will stay there. But don't chase it. Too often a waiter, thinking you have left, will take away your chair, and you'll be under the table for the duration. If you are lucky, you can sometimes retrieve the napkin by getting it between your feet, then spraddling your knees until it comes within reach. If nothing else, the raised eyebrows, or hackles, to your right and your left will provide another opportunity to discuss aerobic exercises or the training manual of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Unlike the way soup comes in Shoney's restaurants, sop at a dinner party will come to you already dished up. How to attack it becomes your only problem. Don't go at it as if you were digging for clams. The preferred technique is more like making a wedge shot out of a sand trap: The spoon is filled, in other words, by moving it away from you. Whether you sip from the side or from the front of the spoon is not important, as long as the resulting noise doesn't sound like the last gallon of water draining from the bathtub. When you reach the level where you think the dish should be tipped, tip it away from you--should there be enough left that it sloshes overboard, better that it be absorbed by a hard roll on your bread plate than by the Dacron and wool of your blue serge suit.

The meat course is horse of a different color. You have to choose between holding the fork tines up or down. This will depend upon whether, should you suddenly be startled by soup soaking through to your shorts because you have ignored my suggestions, you prefer to be jabbed in the chin or in the upper lip. Regardless, the fork is held in the right hand, never in the right hand, never in the left. Should you happen to be a south-paw--tough (which often goes for the meat as well.)

The question is often raised: Is it proper to spear vegetables on the fork along with the meat? The answer is yes, provided you don't have to chase them all over hell's half-acre. Also, keep in mind the seating capacity of your mouth. Standing room only at a Michigan-Ohio State game is one thing; waving your fork around like a pennant while unloading your mouth is quite another.

Remember that your right elbow has certain territorial limits. With arms akimbo, you not only take on the appearance of a flying buttress, but an old Burma-Shave adage, "Don't stick your elbow out too far/Or it will go home in another car," also applies. In this case, if your piece of resistance is resistant to the point of defying cutlery, you risk a tort suit for cracking your neighbor's ribs. And who knows what a jury would award the victim of such an incident?

Above all, never change your fork to your left hand when reaching, say, for your water glass. If your technique hasn't already given the impression that you are spearing frogs, this action will do it. And holding the knife in one hand and the fork in the other not only looks menacing, but if someone across the table is gesturing with his knife at the same time and your blades touch. . .well, duels have resulted from less.

Acceptable as your conduct may be, you still won't be earning many points without a working knowledge of the flatware semaphore code. Recognized at dinner parties the world over, this code signals the status of the diner.

While you eat a piece of the hardtack that passes for rolls t these spreads, or while you take a drink, the knife and fork should be placed in the "rest" position, with the fork lying across the center of the knife blade at a 90-degree angle. Otherwise, the waiter will whisk away your plate before you can grab your bubble gum, and you'll be left to play tiddlywinks with your hard-roll crumbs until the next course is served.

When you are finished wrestling with the piece of resistance, place your knife and fork parallel on your plate, with the prongs of the fork down and the blade of the knife facing the fork. This universal symbol says, "Waiter, I've had it!" If you should turn the fork tines up or the knife blade away from the fork, you could sit there till doomsday.

After everyone has signaled "quits," the table is cleared of dinner plates and unused silver that hasn't found its way into pockets our purses; the table is crumbed, stopping all games og tiddlywinks, and the dessert plates are served, along with the finger bowls. The finger bowl will be to the upper left of your plate; the dessert fork to your left, the spoon to your right. Reaching over to the finger bowl, simply tippy-finger in; unless you are prone to sloppiness, the rules sanction brushing wet fingertips across your mouth. If not done to excess (in other words, wait until you get home to wash up), there will be no need to dry your face with your napkins, which is probably back on the floor anyway. If you should by mistake drink from your finger bowl, just keep on talking. Never ask for a refill.

There are still more "don'ts" to a dinner party than you can shake a carrot stick at:

Don't chew with your mouth open. Take the time to swallow before answering your neighbor's query: "How come they invited you?"

Don't smack your lips or rub your stomach or burp to show appreciation for a good meal. If your stomach begins to rumble in protest of the treatment it's receiving, don't try to blame it on street traffic. Just talk above the sound.

If you knock over a water glass, don't jump up and begin mopping with your napkin; often, the water will cascade into the cleavage of the woman across from you, at which point it becomes her problem.

Don't pick up a utensil dropped on the floor, unless you were going to retrieve your napkin anyway.

Piece of gristle on your meat? Don't finger the culprit. I dispose of something like this rather neatly, by scratching my ear and dropping the offending article into my sleeve. Then it's a simple matter to put my hand in my pocket and let the gristle drop out to join the olive pits, the stones from the cherry pies, and the pebbles I'm always finding in the baked beans. Until you've practiced at home, it's better to chew the gristle into pieces as small as possible, then tongue them onto your fork or spoon and lay them on the rim of your plate.

If you have to blow your nose, don't make a big production of it. Just make sure you use your handkerchief and not the napkin, which is probably on the floor again by now. Finally, don't get up from the table until the hostess rises--unless you are asked. And if you've been paying attention, you have learned enough to be there right to the bitter end.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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