Up until around seven, everything had gone swimmingly. I hadn’t spilt a drop of my pre-dinner gimlet, I hadn’t tripped over a single foot in the crowded foyer, and, miracles of miracles, my nylons had not shredded into a million tired strands (even after an unfortunate run in with an especially rapacious bit of shrubbery.) I was on top of my game, blending seamlessly into the occasion, mingling openly with strangers, deftly sidestepping dangerous subject matter, like religion and James Cameron. Bully for me! I could finally count myself an adult, practiced, poised, and completely undaunted. This was, of course, until I saw the setting.
There it was, gleaming softly, smug in its position on top of the linen, chock-a-block with forks upon forks, several spoons, and a strange, frighteningly fanged knife that I had never encountered in all my years of cutting food. It was going to be my undoing, for you see:
I don’t know how to eat in public.
There. I’ve said it. Now you know. Or, perhaps, if you have dined with me in the past, you’ve known this for a long time. And were too polite to say anything. Well, fine then. Now you know that I know….that you know. Yes.
Now, this fear, this angst, this crippling anxiety might well be a national blight, and I am just too self-absorbed (self-conscious? No, no - self-absorbed…) to notice. Maybe there are others of my generation who grew up not knowing how to hold a fork and knife, not recognizing a desert spoon from a soupspoon. I have a vague memory of my grandmother trying to teach me how to set a proper table, but I also recall being quite young at the time, around seven or eight, and not so concerned about the complexities of “being a good wife.” She also tried to teach me how to knit during these years, but gave up, mainly due to a lack of dexterity on my part, and the sudden onset of a dreadful wool allergy. Bumps and rashes. And lots of mucous. Not a good look for a potential homemaker. No indeed.
My mother and father, on the other hand, seemed rather nonplussed when it came to my status as the future Mrs. Mackenzie Astin (oh, how I adored him as the rascally Andy on TV’s The Facts of Life…sigh…we going to be something, Mackenzie, you and me…) In fact, my parents’ love of all “Free With Purchase” kitchenware from the gas station made dinner time quite the guessing game. Steak knives with pasta? Plastic travel mugs for juice? Commemorative Olympic serving spoons for reaaaallly big ice cream sundaes? Sure! Why the hell not! We just completed the set with last fill-up!
When it came to the actual maneuvering of utensils, I truly don’t recall being the recipient of any discernable wisdom, save for, “don’t stab at that!” and “Hey! We use those for eating, not digging for bait!” I knew it wasn’t nice to use your knife to make a point (I learned that the hard way), and instinctively understood one doesn’t hold one’s fork like a winching handle. Other than that, I was pretty much on my own. Growing up in the country doesn’t provide a gal with much fine dining experience. I went through most of my childhood thinking corncob holders were the height of gustatory refinement.
Upon reflection, though, I suppose there were clues to the contrary. Which generally began popping up as soon as I began to edge my way towards womanhood (a “hood” that still seems somewhat out of reach.) Like, when I was a teenager on vacation, and my older, city mouse cousin introduced me to the joys of sushi. Never mind that there were chopsticks to handle (oy vey), and tiny sake cups to delicately sip (not gulp down in one foul swoop like a shot of Jäger - be a lady, be a lady), but there were subtleties in protocol that demanded rapt attention and scholarly precision. Such as:
- Miso shiro should be consumed from the bowl, and not spooned up to one’s mouth like common beef barley (hah! Screw you, soup spoon!)
- to immerse your wasabi paste in your soy sauce is considered an insult to the chef’s choice of soy (and his prissy-poo creations - though he apparently won’t care one whit if you do so while eating your sashimi)
- you may use your fingers (oh yeah!) to convey certain forms of sushi to your mouth
- never dip your nigirizushi into the soy sauce rice first - you will insult the chef on his rice-making abilities (sushi chefs are as sensitive as 14 year old girls, one can assume.) Flip over, and lightly touch the fish to the soy.
There was also the time that I, as a freewheeling undergrad in Ottawa, dined with my Moroccan friend and her likewise Moroccan family. They took me to a lovely restaurant that screamed, “EXOTIC!!!”, but only to me, only because I was choosing to “other” another culture. Which I knew was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Given the 1990’s proclivity for all things PC and inclusive.
So I contained my excitement, over vibrant swathes of embroidered fabric and fabulously tasseled cushions (eeeee!), and followed my friend to our knee-high table. How cute! And ornate! AND HOW COMPLETELY NORMAL (nothing to see here.) We sat, I, next to my friend’s father, as the guest of honour, and my friend to my other side. “Use your right hand for everything, your left hand only for wiping,” whispered my helpful pal. “Wiping what?” I whispered back, momentarily distracted (and secretly mesmerized) by the thin stream of water being poured into my glass from on high. But Ari didn’t have time to explain, as her parents began ordering an endless litany of dishes from the increasingly gleeful waitstaff that slowed only slightly when it came time to ask the honoured guest about her interest in wine.
Eep. See, I knew enough at the time that A) Ari’s family was Muslim and B) some (most?) practicing Muslims did not drink. But Ari was pretty moderate in her leanings, so did this mean her family was too? On the flipside, if I said no to a splash of vino, was that denying her parents a welcome respite from the endless rhetoric of two wide-eyed, change-the-world, “WOMEN, UNITE! TAKE BACK THE NIGHT!” intellectual-sophisticates? Oh, heavy hung the head that held the Guest of Honour crown.
“Um, gee, well, I dunno, I mean, if you…uh, this water is pretty spectacular, and…”
My country bumpkin was showing. Two years in the big city had done nothing to lift the pilling polyester pall of my (ill) breeding. A true urbane urbanite would know exactly what to do. They wouldn’t dare insult their meal ticket by flippantly commanding a tipple, especially if said tipple flew in the face of thousands of years of cultural sobriety. Even if that culture placed a high premium on hospitality and amenability. But then again…
“We’ll start off with a bottle of white - what do you recommend?”
And with that, Ari’s dad (and the obliging waiter) relieved me of my honourific duties. Phew. Thank Allah. Please pass the Chardonnay.
Things went great during the soup course. Ari and I were charmingly entertaining, if only slightly bombastic through salads. Once the couscous and shared mains came (complete with a ver y memorable Cab-Sauv), I was thoroughly feeling my oats (if not a shade tipsy.) This was totally my scene, digging ’round with fingers and bits of bread, dipping here, scooping there. Why couldn’t every cuisine be eaten this way? Fettuccine Alfredo could only benefit from the addition of hands (and hands could only benefit from the curative lashings of cream sauce.) You could easily pick the best bits out of paella (and flick offending, excess grains of rice at your competing diners.) Why, even a porterhouse…
Wait. Why was everyone staring at me?
“I told you to eat with your right hand!!!” hissed a now propriety-bent Ari.
“Not your right AND your left! Just your right!”
“What’s the difference?!”
“Your right hand is for eating. Your left is for…dirty things.”
Dirty things? What could be…oh crap! It took me ¾ of the meal, but I got it; I was eating with the hand consigned to the tail end of things. I was eating with my ass-hand.
“Ah, shit. Sorry.”
Sadly, I was never asked to accompany Ari to anything family-related again. But I’d like to think it had more to do with me questioning her father’s stance on female imams, than eating with my ass-hand.
I’d like to think that, anyway.
But the fact is, even I have stood in judgment over the eating habits of others. Like, when this date of mine asked for chopsticks in a Thai restaurant. God, how gauche. Everybody knows Thai food has to be eaten with a fork and a spoon. Or at least that’s what this other guy told me over a shared plate of Phat khi mao. He and I didn’t last very long. I hate culture bullies.
It works the other way too, when admiration, nay, envy come into play. A particular turning point in personal etiquette came after an evening of watching a comely steakhouse diner sing for her supper. She was very obviously on a date, laughing at the slightest provocation, tossing her hair, lightly touching her dining companion on the arm - you know, the usual shtick. What got me, though, was her expertise with silverware; this lady understood the power of good table manners. Holding her fork in her left paw and her knife in her right, she began (almost) imperceptibly sawing away at her filet and veg. Keeping eye contact with her man, she slowly (though not too slowly, as to make a whole production out of the thing) brought the fork up to her mouth. With tines turned in, she slid the meat between her lips, smiled, and…OK. This is starting to sound weird. What I am trying to get at is A) she didn’t so much seduce in order to eat well, as use eating as a form of seduction and B) I became aware, for the first time, of the “continental” style of dining.
Who knew they did it differently on the continent? And here I was, juggling my gear like a chump. Making sure I had enough stuff sliced on my plate so that I could free up a hand (knives may not be used for emphasis, but fingers are perfect for proving your point.) All this time, I should’ve been holding on to my utensils for dear life (or at least for the duration of the meal.)
This woman made the act of chowing down look so effortless, so sexy, so refined. I won’t even begin to get into what she did with her napkin. I wanted, nay, needed to learn her ways. So I gave it a shot - I palmed the fork and kept my hold on the knife. I cut, I lifted, and gazed knowingly at the man across from me.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?! ARE YOU HAVING A STROKE?” squawked my Uncle Ernie. “Harriett, go tell your mother you’re not feeling well. I told you not to order the fish here, but did you listen? No. No you did not.”
Sigh. He never got my name right.
So fine. Family dinners were obviously not the place to test out new and exciting ways of conducting one’s self. But if not there, then where? Things only got worse when I moved to Montreal. Though I managed to get through grad school relatively unscathed (drunken, late night bagel runs didn’t require anything but a steady hand with which to pay the counter lady) it was when I started working that my shortcomings became glaring apparent. Yet again. They always find ways of showing up, don’t they?
After a particularly long and arduous day, my colleagues and I decided that a nice dinner was just what the doctor ordered. Since it was going to be on the company’s tab, it was just what my accountant ordered too. We breezed into the resto, the Maitre d’ snapping to attention with the appearance of eight young hotshots (with cash to blow) at the door. He sat us in prime real estate, and swiftly brought a round of complementary aperitifs (as a general rule, it is good to get hotshots drinking early.) We all took a cursory glance at the menu, zeroing in on the items we’d rarely order when left to our own line of credit. The wine came fast and furious, and the stress of the last ten hours began evaporating like so much good sense after a long stretch of working under the hot, unrelenting sun.
The bisque appeared and disappeared without much ado (”Bisque? That requires a….spoon. Yes. Good. Scoop away from myself and everything will be allllllriiiigh…ah, phooey. I hope this comes out of silk…”) Then the roasted endive, which caused only slight prickles of sweat (”The sections are cut lengthwise, like spears of crudités, so, technically, I could eat them with my fingers. Sure. I’ll own it, make it look cool.”) A bit of bread was nibbled (”which plate is mine? Ah, who cares-I’ll just share this one…”) and then, the entrées.
Those prickles of sweat? Yeah - they joined forces to become a veritable Niagara Falls.
All of my other tablemates began tucking into their elk or bass or
lobster roll-ups with shaved white truffles bedded on a saffron cream reduction, nimbly wielding their utensils without the slightest deliberation on their (very continental) technique. I, on the other hand, sat frozen with dread.
“What’s wrong? Did they mix up your order?”
“Did you find a hair?”
“Madame ? Y a-t-il un problème ??”
“Non, non. Tout est parfait. Merci.”
I had to start eating. Mainly because everybody was staring. But also because the bisque and endive were doing nothing to sop up the tanker spill of alcohol now flooding my system. So, I reached for my knife and fork. And then promptly let them clatter to the floor.
Smart thinking, huh? That gave me a few more minutes to…
“Aucun problème, Madame. Voici un autre ensemble d’ustensiles,” murmured the waiter, hovering over our table like a well-manicured vulture.
Yes. OK. Back in the saddle, then. What did it matter how I ate? So what if those who dine with refinement get further ahead in life? Who cares if I look like one of those sign language apes out on a day pass? Bet they’ll think it’s cute if I eat “mash-up style”, starting out on the continent, and ending up lost somewhere in the Ozarks. It will be refreshing, to see someone breaking the mould.
That was, of course, what I kept telling myself throughout the meal. I tried not to notice, as my co-workers glanced questioningly at my plate. I blinded myself to what they saw-the mess, the massacre, the bits of braised matter spattered Jackson Pollock-like around my place mat. “They’re soused,” I mantra-ed, “they won’t remember this tomorrow.”
But I did. I remembered. And I still do.
Because unlike an unfortunate memory that softens in perspective over time, this inability to dine kept rearing it’s uncouth head anew. It turned up in all of my other business lunches, on-the-job dinners, and heinous pre-work breakfasts (it takes a special kind of crazy to stomach job talk while hammering back runny eggs and cardboard toast.) Practice at home did nothing to stem the burgeoning tide of my paralyzing angst. I’d prick my lip with salad tines. I’d send potatoes skittering across the table with a single cut. I’d get heart palpitations after the fourth failed attempt at conveying more than three peas to my mouth. That sign language ape? I bet she’d have mastered this by now…
Which brings me back to the beginning. Of my story. Remember? That egregious setting. That immaculate sheen. My Waterl….oh, OK. You remember. Good.
I sat down at my assigned table, ready to disappoint all who had, in the making of my acquaintance, mistaken me for a fully functioning human. I nodded hello to the lawyer to my left, the politico to my right, and hoped to God that the much renowned (and quite revered) TV journalist seated kitty-corner wasn’t hiding a spy-cam in his tie clip.
“Your soup. Bon appetit!” the (bastard) cater waiter cheerfully sang out.
The horror. The horror.
I waited for everyone to be served. I stared blankly at the four spoons, their spindly stems pointing menacingly at me, all silently screaming, “J’accuse!!” I contemplated asking the politico for a Xanax (those kids - they’re always on something.) And then…
Like a ray of light, like a beacon of hope, like a happy, long lost memory from another lifetime, I remembered something.
There is a rule of etiquette that supersedes all other dining traditions. You want to know it? This could be of help to you. All right. Here it is:
When in doubt, follow suit. Pick you mark, and watch what piece of cutlery they choose. Then see how they use it. Then, do the same. Sound simple? It is. However, there is a caveat. Should that person commence eating with the wrong utensil intended for the course, you must also do the same.
That’s right; if the first guest to start eating screws up, just go along with it. Eat that radicchio with your seafood fork. Butter your roll with a switchblade. Or, in my case, start sipping your soup with a desert spoon.
I had to. It would have been impolite, otherwise.
Guess they don’t teach table manners in journalism school.