Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Table manners: Setting it right, eating it right

By Kaui Philpotts
Special to The Advertiser

A piece of bread should be buttered just before you eat it and the butter spreader placed back across the butter plate after each use. Never pop an entire slice of bread into your mouth.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

There was a time at the turn-of-the-century in America when, desperate to set themselves apart from the masses, the newly wealthy invented table manners and tableware so intricate it was almost impossible to get through a meal. Europeans visiting this country would secretly laugh at our pretensions at the table, where it was not uncommon to have 15 to 20 pieces of flatware to contend with at a formal dinner.

Thank goodness, we no longer have to play that snobbish game. We have, in many ways, gone in the opposite direction, becoming so casual that many no longer know the basics of proper table setting and etiquette. It was especially telling a few years ago when highly successful technology companies began giving their millionaire executives on-site classes in table manners.

Bright as these young people were, many had been raised eating on the run in fast- food establishments or in front of television sets. Without realizing it, busy parents had neglected setting tables with any degree of complication and rarely entertained with their children at the table. Gone also were the days of Saturday cotillion classes and other opportunities to learn.

So why manners now? Well, if you’ve ever been caught at a dinner in a fancy restaurant with four wine glasses and a myriad of implements, you know the panic. But more than anything, manners are a matter of kindness and grace. They should make sense. Like it or not, poor manners send out some nasty signals.

Here are a few pointers, some of which have been greatly relaxed for contemporary living.

The Napkin

Napkins should be simply folded and placed either to the left of the forks or in the middle of the plate. Forget those origami folds, especially the ones stuffed into the wine glasses. Napkins in napkin rings are traditionally for family dinners only, a holdover from the days when you never actually soiled your napkin and family members saved them to be used at another meal.

When everyone is seated at the table, you should unfold your napkin and place it in your lap (OK, never under your chin, tucked into your collar).

If you need to leave the table during a meal, place your napkin on the seat of your chair, not on the table or the back of the chair, since it could be soiled and unattractive to other diners.

At the end of the meal, place the napkin, lightly folded to the left of your plate.

The Meal

Most American restaurants still offer butter plates for fine dining. In Europe, said John Loring, author and Tiffany’s design guru, they simply place the bread on the table. Loring, who was in Hawaii recently promoting his latest book and presenting royal portraits to Iolani Palace, said that people would be surprised if they knew how simple the settings and manners were in even the fanciest houses in France, where he lived for many years.

Nevertheless, the important thing with bread or rolls is not to pop the entire thing into your mouth. A slice of bread should be broken as you eat it and the rest of the piece placed back on the plate. Butter each piece just before you eat it. If you have a butter spreader, place it back across the top of the butter plate after use.

Most salads, if they have no meat or cheese in them and are cut into bite-size pieces, are eaten with a salad fork only. However, today, if there are large chunks of food in the salad, it is perfectly alright to cut them with your knife and place the knife on the slat across the top of the salad plate. The salad fork is the smaller one placed to the left of the larger dinner fork. Often today, however, the salad and smaller dessert fork are used interchangeably. Fish forks have a thong and often double for salad forks.

When you eat soup, using the large spoon with a rounded bowl usually to the right of the knives, you should spoon away from you. It’s all right to tilt the bowl slightly to get the last of the soup. Just tilt it away from you, too. Never blow on your soup! If you are served formal china soup bowls with handles, it is proper to pick up the soup bowl with both hands and sip the balance.

It is possible that you may encounter a fish knife next to your dinner knife if that course is going to be served; however, in a restaurant, often your dinner knife is replaced by a fish knife after you’ve ordered. In general, your utensils are meant to be used from the outside in.

When you cut your food, never "saw at it" with your knife and fork. Turn your utensils over with your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right. Your thumb should be on the side of the utensils and your index finger on the back. When you are taking a breather during the meal, place your utensils across the middle of the plate with the handles pointed outward and the fork tines pointed downward.

When you have finished, place both utensils together with the knife blade pointed inward at about 5 o’clock on your plate. It is a signal to the waiter that you have finished.

It might surprise you to know that people ate only with pointed knives until the 16th century. However, there is a story about a Byzantine noblewoman in the 11th century who used a two-pronged instrument to stab her food, along with the knife, and scandalized polite society.

By the way, food is served to you from the left and should be removed from the right.

A word about handling a stemmed glass. Never clutch the bowl or rim. Try to hold the glass by keeping most of your fingers on the slender stem.

When someone asks you to pass the salt, pass both the salt and pepper. The two always go together, even if they weren’t both requested.

And need I say that you should not talk with your mouth full or make sucking or slurping sounds at the dinner table?

Changeless rules

Things have relaxed now to the point that formal dinners do not require starched, white linen and perfectly matched flatware patterns. Crystal no longer has to match, and neither does the china. However, there are a few things that still apply.

Do not light candles at lunch.
When you fill the water glasses before your guests are seated, use flat or tap water and not sparkling (which will go flat quickly).
Using place cards is still nice to avoid a scramble and to make sure the people you want to talk to each other are able to do so.
Forget the precious scoops of sorbet to "clear the palate" between meals.
Set your table with the same number of glasses at each place setting, even if you know the person doesn’t drink.

Now go out and have a really great time.

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