Culinary Conundrums

Years ago, when Mannersmith was in its infancy, I was invited to dinner by a woman who was very interested in my business. She chose a lovely restaurant and I eagerly anticipated the interaction. During our first course, she enthusiastically shared her love of etiquette as well as a laundry list of her pet peeves. I still remember the meal so clearly. As she listed off rude behaviors, she punctuated her conversation by picking up pieces of lettuce from her salad and shoving them into her mouth. At first, I thought she was pulling my leg. But it quickly became evident this was how she preferred to eat her salad, sticky fingers and all. I was grateful she chewed with her mouth shut! That dinner taught me two things: First, that just as in the field of ethics, in etiquette we judge ourselves by our best intentions and others by their last worst act. And second, that well-educated, successful individuals think they have a better understand of dining skills than they actually do.

Here is a quick quiz, true or false, regarding gracious dining:

1. _____ There is a great etiquette debate as to when to place your napkin on your lap.

2. _____ The symmetry of dining only extends to the place settings.

3. _____ How the fork and knife are positioned sends silent signals to the wait staff.

4. _____ Other cultures wonder why Americans have our hands in our laps.

5. _____ Polite people pay the bill at the table at the end of the meal.

How did you do?

1. True, there is a great etiquette debate regarding your napkin. There are some consultants who recommend taking your napkin and placing it on your lap as soon as you arrive at the table. The more modern approach is to wait until everyone is seated before removing your napkin. Waiting allows the table to remain untouched and elegant until all have arrived. Additionally, should you need to rise as others join the table, you need not worry about your napkin falling from your lap to the floor or grasping your unfolded napkin in your hand like a child's security blanket.

2. False, the symmetry of dining has many corollaries, including place settings and ordering. The symmetry of dining states that when looking at the table, everyone's place settings have the same dining implements in the same location. (Another reason to wait before taking your napkin!) This not only looks better, but it allows you, your fellow diners and the wait staff to know what belongs to each person. This means you are not allowed to take your bread plate and move it closer to you in between courses! To keep the symmetry you should also order the same number of courses and same number of drinks as your fellow diners. Please note, this does not require you to match anyone's alcohol intake. You must order a drink, however, and a soft drink is perfectly acceptable.

3. True, where you place your fork and knife signals the wait staff as to where you are in the meal. Remembering that once a utensil touches food it is never to touch the tablecloth again means you need to know where to put your fork and knife. Imagine your plate is the face of a clock. An inverted "v," with the fork on the left - tines near the 12 and handle at the 8 - and the knife on the right - blade near the 12 and the handle at the 4 , indicates you are still eating. Whereas the fork and knife parallel on the right of your plate indicates that you are finished.

4. True, in America, we are taught that while at the table, when we are not eating, our hands belong in our laps. Just about everywhere else in the world, they wonder what we are doing down there. Across cultures, humans become very wary when we can not see someone else's hands. Even if you are not about to embark upon a world-wide vacation tomorrow, do practice resting your wrists on the table's edge so that your hands remain in sight.

5. False, the most uncomfortable portion of a meal is when the bill is presented to the table. When you are having a casual bite with friends, there really is no need for concern. If you are entertaining for business or hosting a formal social event, you should arrange with the staff to pay the bill after your guests have gone. This allows a smooth transition at the end of the meal and completely avoids the uncomfortable moment when guests wonder if they should be offering up the credit cards or cash to help you cover costs.

Are you a dining skills star? Remember, etiquette evolves. As for my friendly salad snacker, she did not ask me to critique her dining, so I refrained. But her behavior, years later, long after the substance of the conversation has been lost, still lingers.