Always pass the salt and pepper together. Cut one bite at a time. Your bread plate is to the left; your drink is to the right. Pass food to the left; but first, offer it to the right. Enter your seat on the right side. Only butter one bite of bread at a time. Do not take a sip while you have food in your mouth. Use your finger bowl one hand at a time. Indicate you are finished by laying your silverware at 10 and 4, fork on the bottom, knife facing in. But, this is only if you are eating American style. Dining etiquette may seem overwhelming, especially when under the watchful eyes of an interviewer or professional foodie, but with common sense and respect anyone can look like a professional eater, and not of the hot dog variety.
Margaret Visser notes in The Rituals of Dinner that dinner rituals were first created for safety. She says, “Eating is aggressive by nature, and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons” and, thus, rules were made to ensure no violence erupted at the table. While I agree that some rules are necessary for a meal to flow smoothly, I think some of the minute details of etiquette are absurd. For example, while most of us know that soup should not be slurped and the bowl should never be brought to our lips and thrown back like a shot, how many people know that chunky soups are to be eaten off the end of the spoon while thinner soups are to be taken off the side of the spoon? I can’t imagine what good reason there is for this rule. Perhaps it forced ladies to pucker their lips, thereby distracting men from potential violence?
There are numerous misperceptions regarding manners. Growing up, children are always told, “NO ELBOWS ON THE TABLE.” Hopefully, all parents didn’t yell as this would also be rude and not proper etiquette. But, elbows are in fact allowed on the table once everything has been cleared. Even professionals do not know all of the rules of etiquette. I was at dinner with a famous cookbook author, restaurant chef, and TV host a few weeks ago when she chided me for cutting my salad. I have been self-conscious ever since because I always cut my salad. I have been wrestling for weeks now with how to evenly distribute all of the distinct components of salad. While I hate to succumb to such contrived rules of society, I hate more to be wrong and embarrass myself by not knowing. Turns out, thank god, you can cut your salad! But, you are only supposed to cut small sections at a time; so, I am still left with the quandary of how to achieve a well-mixed salad. While I still haven’t solved this great mystery, I am comforted to know that even famous foodies do not know all the proper etiquette.
Queen Elizabeth once followed the lead of a foreign guest and picked up her finger bowl and drank it like a soup to ensure her guest would never know he had committed such a social faux pas. While the basic tenets of etiquette such as how to indicate to the wait staff you have finished with your plate are absolutely necessary to participate in the unspoken conversation of dinner, many of the nuances are completely unnecessary. At its core, etiquette is simply a set of rules to ensure respect. Do not be distracted about whether you should be eating your avocado with your fork or spoon (fork if it is sliced, spoon if it is served in its shell). Simply remember to respect others, ensure their comfort, and, most importantly, enjoy the food!