From an early age I was taught the importance of good table manners.
“Show me a man’s table manners and I’ll tell you who he is,” my mother averred.
I wasn’t allowed to do the boarding house reach across the table. I wasn’t allowed to hold my knife like a pen. I was taught to sip soup using the spoon to scoop from the side of the bowl opposite you.
I was never, ever allowed to place my elbows on the table. Burping was something only babies did. I was brought up on Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s ‘Elegance’ and Debrett’s Correct Form.
It pains me to report that In America table manners are as rare as unicorn droppings.
With the exception of about half a dozen people, most people eat rather unattractively.
From the moment the bread basket arrives I can tell who he/she is: they proceed to cut the rolls with the butter knife.
She orders the grilled shrimp.
My mind goes into picture postcards. I remember going to Norman’s Prawn in downtown Johannesburg on Sunday nights I would get taken there by a rich Greek boyfriend and we would order a dozen (each) prawns with piri piri sauce. The entire meal was eaten with our fingers.
I watch her desperately attempting to fastidiously dissect the shrimp with a knife a fork. When I suggest kindly that she eats them with her fingers, that I will provide her with a finger bowl she looks suspicious. Perhaps she thinks I am offering to give her a manicure.
He offers her an oyster. She reaches over the table (that would be the boarding house reach) and with her expensive bangles jangling, she skewers one on her fork.
Oysters should not be pierced with a fork. They should be allowed to slide down the throat by tipping the head ever so slightly. Those who request HP/Tabasco/horseradish/cocktail sauce – you don’t really like the snotty delicacy. Just own up! Don’t try and disguise their taste.
Purists will eat oysters with a squeeze of lemon juice. Possibly a drizzle of mignonette.
When it comes to eating meat – Americans zig zag. Emily Post gave it the name “Zig Zag” but it could also be called slice and switch.
Europeans will cut a piece of meat and place the tines of the fork into the meat and convey the piece of meat to the mouth.
Americans pin their meat down with a fork held in a fist (or like a pencil), they will then saw away at it. They then put the knife on the plate and pick up the fork with their right hand.
This cut and switch, according to Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College is a French thing which dates back to the early 18th century and is an attempt to pretend fancy manners. Anna Post suggests that since violence was part of the weft and weave of the American tapestry, lowering the knife, was therefore a sign of trust.
That’s giving it too much intellectual justification. Zig zagging is both unattractive and labour intensive.
Restaurants have long been the scene of social exhibitionism – and therefore anxiety.
“In restaurants,” writes Martin Amis “my father (the novelist Kingsley Amis) always wore an air of vigilance, as if in expectation of being patronised, stiffed, neglected or regaled by pretension.”
It is here that one is put to the torture of listening to people discussing the relative merits of West Coast oysters as opposed to East Coast oysters and how they can tell precisely to the minute how much time has elapsed from the oyster being shucked until it arrived in front of them.
It is here that new money and old flesh will happily pay $20 for a child-sized portion of pasta. It is here that a couple of radishes, served on a bread board with a little kosher salt and butter clock in at $7.50
As Kingsley Amis put it in his novel ‘The Biographer’s Moustache’, this is food ”whose pleasure is small and whose cost is great.”
Despite being menacingly well-groomed, a woman who doesn’t know how to eat elegantly is compromised.
Recently I portered the aforementioned radishes to such a menacingly well-groomed woman. I placed the worn wooden board in front of her. The trio of radishes trembled slightly. She looked at me with disbelief.
Then she commenced to survey the table.
“Why…what….why would they serve the radishes like this? Why wouldn’t they cut them up….something…anything.” I hovered solicitously.
She suddenly became annoyed.
“This is too much hard work. Take them away and slice them for me.” Her mouth shut tight like a sprung trap.
As Joseph Epstein observed ”One knows one is in the presence of decadence, with a reverse snobbish twist, when people start ordering in restaurants food that would certainly disappoint them if it were served to them at home.”
This current decadence – the high prices make for the decadence – is possibly as a result of fancy food fatigue. Foodies are tired of food that has been gussied up, sautéed and marinated and mounted as if it were an assemblage in the Tate.
The rage for comfort food, offal and, yes, radishes is the new snobbery. In the new inverted snobbery it is not only acceptable, but desirable to announce that one’s son or daughter is going to the CIA. Not the Central Intelligence Agency. The Culinary Institute of America.
This week I had the pleasure of ‘taking care of’ two young moderns of the culinary world, Kyle and Amber. Kyle is a chef and instantly endeared himself to the kitchen by bringing a six-pack of fine ale. “I work at a BYOB establishment and I figured they might like something.”
Given the high heat and humidity in the kitchen his thoughtfulness was especially appreciated. Both he and his pretty girlfriend are foodies. They ordered the lamb chops rare and didn’t have a single life-threatening food intolerance. (“I’m pomegranate pip intolerant. There are no pomegranate pips in the salmon, are there?” I heard this week.)
When it was time to order dessert they ordered three. Their presence in the restaurant was cold cloth to a fevered brow.
Finally, no blog worth its weight in air guitar etc etc would be complete without mentioning the demise of Paula Deen. She is currently on an apology tour for having said the ‘n’ word some thirty years ago.
George Carlin said it best:
Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and its especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.