Friday, June 14, 2013

Table manners cut the sheep from the goats

(Formal place setting, Wikipedia)

Americans are goats.

I realize most liberal commentators--hell, anyone with a working human brain--usually refers to Americans as sheep, mainly because of the way they allowed George W. Bush to lead them into bondage over a stage-managed putative terrorist attack.

But actually, they are goats.

Goats are more intelligent than sheep, which would tend at first to suggest that Americans, dumbed down by hook and by crook, cannot be goats.

However, one may be willfully obtuse if one has a brain, and goats--as do Americans-- have a reputation for being a bit stubborn. Goats also are not nearly as attentive and protective of their young as are Americans, who proclaim loudly and widely about loving kids, but actually generally fail to raise them...but that's another rant for another day.

Goats also have rather annoying table habits. According to Wikipedia, when goats investigate something new:

They do so primarily with their prehensile upper lip and tongue. This is why they investigate items such as buttons, camera cases or clothing (and many other things besides) by nibbling at them, occasionally even eating them.
I suspect a table at which goats had dined would look a lot like the one described to us on night recently by our favorite restaurateur.

International relations

Suzanne said a group of semi-Americans (that is, a mixed group of Brits and Americans) came in together for dinner one night. They passed the dishes of food around as if they were in a Chinese restaurant. And she couldn't tell when they were finished eating because of the completely American way they left their plates. That is to say, cutlery was everywhere, and the tables were an awful mess when it was all over.

How do Americans leave their plates, I asked, being a former American, and being curious.

"Well," said Suzanne (also a former American),  "They don't place their knife and fork across the top of the plate; they just leave the cutlery any old place, on the table, on the plate any old way...." She didn't say on the floor, but having worked in family restaurants in the US years ago, that's a distinct possibility.

A light bulb went off, though. Aha, thought I, now I know why waiters and waitresses in the States used to ask me if I was finished when it was clear that I was, the knife and fork having been placed across the top of my plate. They didn't know. They had no idea that the signal for being finished with one's meal is to place the knife and fork side-by-side across the top of the plate.

Dining boot camp

I was taught such things early, and I suppose I just thought everyone knew them. I was also taught not to bang the sides of my glass with the spoon while stirring sugar into iced tea (this would not be an issue in the American South where iced tea comes already sweetened.), nor on the side of a cup when stirring tea or coffee. I was taught not to gulp from a glass, nor make sucking noises with a straw. I was taught to scoop soup away from me, and to tilt the bowl away when I needed to get the last drops. I was taught to put the spoon down on the service plate, if any. I was taught to wipe my lips after eating before sipping from a glass.

I was taught to handle a knife and fork American style--switching hands between cutting and conveying food to mouth--because that's the way my mother's family did it. My father, however, was raised and taught table manners by an Irish mother from Ireland and so he ate English style, fork in left hand, knife in right, throughout the meal. When I began traveling to Ireland and England in my early 30s, it was easy for me to make the switch, and I've never gone back.

A view of tongue and tonsils, etc.

Whether one eats American or English style, though, some things transcend culture. One of those is signalling that one is finished to anyone--waiter or Mum--that you are finished. Another is wiping lips before drinking. And another biggie is eating with the mouth closed.

Years ago, my husband and I took my father out for dinner to our favorite Italian restaurant in NYC, Monte's in Greenwich Village. He'd been there with us before, and also liked it. But that evening, as we ate, I was aware that my father was uncomfortable in the extreme, picking at his food, looking down at his plate. Eventually, he began behaving as usual, talking and cracking jokes. What was all that about, I later asked him.

It was awful, he said. A man directly in his line of sight had been eating cheese ravioli carbonara with his mouth open, which was turning my father's stomach. When the man left, my father was able to enjoy his meal once again.

And then there's the editor. I had to invite him to lunch. There was a problem that needed to be solved, and it seemed the best way to do it was over an expensive lunch; New York publishing works that way. I hesitated, dragged my feet for weeks. Finally, it could wait no longer. I needed the money, and I had to face it. Courage, I told myself. It won't last longer than two hours. I figured I could endure anything for two hours. So I sent him a note, he accepted the invitation, and I sought the strength to get through a long lunch of what my father endured so that I could come away with the problem solved. Since the problem was my royalties, okay, it was worth it. But just.

What do you do when there is a salt cellar but no spoon for it? How do you get the salt out?

Answer: Use your CLEAN knife, before it has been used for anything else, and dip a bit of salt out of the salt cellar. Deposit the salt on the side of your plate, and add it to your food as you eat each bite with your fork.