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Heads up

I know, know for sure, I’m going to alienate some friends, family, maybe even a paramour or two with this blog.

But, HELLO!!? Can we please eat with our heads up?

I'm not asking for much, I don't think. Honestly, isn't this, shouldn't this, be Dining Ensemble 101?

One does NOT ever, ever, ever, lower one's head to greet one's eating utensil. The eating utensil -- an inanimate object as it is -- is "lower" on the food chain than the human, and therefore, must, always, and forever, be raised to one's mouth. It comes to you, naturellement, which, by the way, you should be situated at a seated, erect (but relaxed) stance, with shoulders square, body ever so slightly inclined forward is absolutely fine.

I'm not obsessed with manners. Okay, well, yes, dammit, I am. I know that. But, I don't think the manners I'm obsessed with are so outrageous. (Mine are horrendous, I'm absolutely sure -- but I can't see myself, now, can I? So if you see me out and about committing flagrant acts of dining disobedience, waste no time in chastising me!)

Do I even have to say this -- that while actually engaged in eating, no elbows should ever rest on the table? (While enjoying an aperitif or dessert, lingering over coffee, or flirtatiously angling for a mid-dinner kiss, are other matters altogether.)

Do I have to say, that under no circumstances, ever, ever, ever, should one's finger be inserted into one's mouth to remove God knows what from between one's teeth? The horror. The horror. (And if you don't get that reference, I sentence you to not one, but two viewings of Apocalypse Now Redux!)

Do I have to, really, remind anyone that a reach beyond one's table setting is absolutely verboten?

And, do I have to say, that one does not, must not, under any circumstances, ever, eat even one morsel of food before the host and/or guest of honor, or last person served, has done so or is about to do so?

Yes, yes, yes, I know, this column reveals me to be as much an anachronism as a man who still insists on standing when a woman approaches the table.

Moving beyond the diners, what about the service? I can barely get into the ghastly manners at local restaurants. Servers picking up and setting down from either side willy nilly. Servers asking you if you're ready to order when the menus haven't even been picked up yet, or worse, asking you if you're ready to order while you're still actually holding a menu in your hands!

Servers asking -- actually asking! -- can I take/clear that for you? Reaching in nearly halfway to your plate, leaving you almost compelled to mutter, um, oh, sure. If you have to ASK, it means the diner is not yet finished. Diners are pretty well-schooled in the discreet fork and knife across the plate message -- why aren't the servers waiting for that? (I hate to think what's probably the truth -- they're trying to rush you out so they can fill the table with new guests.)

I haven't been to a restaurant for over a year that supplied a black napkin to a woman wearing a black dress or black dinner pants. White napkins they put down and white napkins we must use! If one dares to ask for black (and one shouldn't really even have to ask), the response is always the same no matter what restaurant -- "We've just run out."

To which, by way of reply, if we had any dining cajones, we would do the same. :)

Postscript: Okay, so I'm exaggerating slightly (only slightly, though, I say) -- I am, after all, in the midst of watching Howard's End and anything by EM Forster is bound to bring out the manners police in anyone! I stand by the whole bending or hunching one's head or body toward a fork thing, however -- it's just wrong!

Posted on August 20th, 2010Comments RSS Feed
7 Responses to Heads up
  1. MC: Having spent a lifetime training a son in table manors, my entreaty “Would you eat like that with the Queen?” resulted in the usual rejoinder you can imagine. But also some behavioral modification.

    You’ve struck a nerve. Elegant dining – I’ve enjoyed my share – is becoming more casual. I can report from a recent journey from Brussels and Berlin, the “black napkin” standard is defunct. Elitist rubbish except in the finest three-star places…and maybe not then.

    Gladly the peasant practice of bringing the bowl to your lips and shoveling in the grub (with chopsticks or a spoon) is still verboten in all civilized societies.

    My finest places in Sarasota use paper napkins, because I’m there for the grub. People who speak Hindi or Berber aspire to fine service, but lack the budget to do so. Instead they concentrate the on the gorgeous ethnic foods I adore.

    Table service is an ethic all its own. I agree with this post and the prior, that table service in Sarasota can be little more than “bus boy service.” Elegance is a fragile ethic, easily bruised if not shattered.

    Oddly our ethnic restaurants seem to give more credence to fine service than our “posh” places. In a plastic-seat and plastic-silverware environment, the server (often the cook) tries damn hard to make our culinary experience remarkable. Sometimes the bus boy is indeed a boy, the pre-teen son of the cook.

    Reducing tips to zero in the posh restaurants only means the next table gets lousier service. The only cure – as you suggest – is the “Queen’s solution.” Saying “how dare you!” lower my dining experience may shame them into civilization-as-we-know-it.

    We cook too well to go out much. But unless we go to the ma-and-pa ethnic joints, we’re often disappointed – not with the food but the service. It’s a hold-over from feudal times when us lords could command excellent service…or else.

    As for the eye-to-eye stuff, well that’s a different issue. The success of a dinner depends totally on who you’re dining with. Pardon the dangling participle s/StanZ

  2. I loved reading your comments, Stan. I disagree about the black napkins though — they are absolutely — or at least they should be — de rigueur. There’s really nothing more disappointing that leaving a restaurant and seeing your lap littered with white linen lint!

    I WISH I cooked as well as you — because then I would just throw my own dinner parties.

    One of my favorite restaurants in Sarasota is Chutney’s where the service by the owners is sometimes just laughingly poor (and occasionally rude) — but where the service is often quite amiable and where the host always remembers my favorites. The food and the atmosphere are so delicious and local that I truly feel it’s the best neighborhood place in town. I don’t care about the fold up metal chairs or what color the napkins are or if the hostess won’t give me the table I desire because “a larger party might be coming” (words that should never cross the lips of any host — especially not to a diner who comes in all-year round, nearly once a week!) I go for the feeling (and the hummus) I get from the overall vibe of the place, the owners, the other patrons.

    I don’t really care a whit if the service includes the use of a crumber or the use of a plastic cup — and I agree some of the best places employ the latter and don’t even know the former exists. But I care passionately about the quality of the experience, whether it’s a four-star or no-star place. Your use of the word “elegant” is exactly what I’m talking about And elegance has no relation (in my mind) whatsoever to expense or napkins, but it does — and it can — be a part of any dining experience — even at a hot dog stand.

    My recipe for the best dining? very good food; inexpensive but good wine; discreet service; outstanding conversation; and yes, a heightened attention to manners — not rigidly so, but just so. In fact, I prefer manners that require no attention whatsoever — they’re so ingrained they’re effortless and they’re so effectively employed that no one notices except to notice how relaxed and graceful and enjoyable the other person is).

    Of course, the very best manners are reserved for those who wouldn’t dream of pointing out the poor manners of another. In that, with this blog, I have shown my manners to be lacking! :)

  3. Utensils?? Napkins??

    Wow, you must go to some real high-falutin’ joints to see the likes of those….

    MC, I fear that you are becoming a true Sarasotan. You’ve gone from the carefree girl with stars in her eyes who was going to have fun everyday this year to complaining about Obama sitting on his duff and, now, how hard it is to find a respectable foie gras or decent truffles.

    Next thing you know, you’ll be dying your hair white, wearing sensible shoes and driving to the early-bird specials in an ’86 Buick.

  4. One-eyed — thanks for reading and commenting … I gave up foie gras years ago. Haven’t had truffles since I left Boston. But I’m definitely going to dye my hair white and where can I find those early-bird specials? :)

  5. And please,PLEASE rest your left arm on your lap and not on the table almost touching my plate! And please use your spoon to twirl your pasta to bite size rather than slurp it and incise; the remainder to drop back down back to your plate! Its tricky if not impossible correcting adults who dont know better. urghh.. I think Hyde Park fitted me with a black napkin even without requesting.

  6. Oh, I better get to Hyde Park!! 😉

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