The Correct Way to Eat Clams, Mussels, and Oysters–the “aphrodisiacs” of the sea

Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

To observe clams, mussels, and oysters is to immediately see why they have long been dubbed “the aphrodisiacs of the sea.” And many men claim to be sexually aroused just by looking at them, let alone for “eating them out” of their shells!

Clams and oysters, but more oftentimes oysters, are served raw in the half-shell—on a bed of cracked ice. They are traditionally accompanied by wedges or halves of fresh lemons (sometimes covered in cheesecloth stockings which allow the juice of the squeezed lemons to be released onto the shellfish while retaining the seeds of the fruit) and a tomato-based cocktail sauce to which horseradish may be added. Sometimes oyster crackers are also served as a complement, and some gentlemen are in the acceptable habit of crumpling the crackers with the fingers and adding the crumbs to the cocktail sauce.

Bracing the shell with the left hand, the oyster fork is used in the right hand to convey the entire oyster or clam to the mouth. Never are they cut with a knife. If a gentleman wishes to flavor his shellfish with the cocktail sauce, he may use the oyster fork to dab the desired amount of sauce onto the shellfish whilst it is in its shell, or he may dip the fork-speared shellfish into the sauce. The custom of picking up the shell and pouring the shellfish into the mouth is acceptable under less formal circumstances, where oyster forks are oftentimes not provided. And some connoisseurs insist that oysters taste best eaten in such a manner.  But at a formal event, whatever can be eaten with an implement should be eaten with an implement. Such are the laws of Western society.

Mussels, and sometimes clams, are also steamed, usually in a white wine- or beer-based sauce. When steamed, mussels are presented in their full, two-halved shells, which tend to open naturally in the steaming process as their adductor muscles yield when exposed to heat. The mussel should be removed from its shell with a fork and eaten in one bite.

About 12 percent of all mussels, however,  will not open during the normal steaming or cooking process. But contrary to popular myth, they should not necessarily be discarded as bad, for most often they are good and would have opened with additional cooking, though at the risk of becoming tough. (Actually, it is the mussels that open prematurely in the cooking process, those that emit a foul odor before cooking, or those that refuse to open even when “overcooked” that should be automatically avoided. And such mussels are usually detected and discarded by professional chefs). Unopened mussels prepared by a reputable chef, then, may be pried open with the fork and eaten. But ultimately, the true arbiter of a good mussel versus a bad one is the taste buds of the diner. So if the mussel does not taste good, whether presented open or closed, it should not be eaten:  open-and-shut case!  And if a bad oyster, clam, or mussel is inadvertently swallowed before its unsuitable condition could be properly detected, it should be immediately “killed off” by a strong shot of some potent alcohol—rum, vodka, or gin, for example.  Thereafter, a gentleman should hope for the best….

Mussels will be served with an extra plate or bowl into which the empty shells should be placed. Rather than randomly placing them into the bowl or onto the plate (which looks untidy), the shells should be fit into each other, hand-in-glove-like, creating neat stacks.  Any sauce remaining in the dish in which the mussels were served may be eaten, soup-like, with a spoon. Alternatively, sturdy bread such as French bread, speared onto the tines of a fork, may be used to absorb the liquid then eaten.

 

The Correct Way to Eat Corn-on-the-Cob at the Formal Dinner Table

Corn-on-the-Cob

No reasonable host would serve corn-on-the-cob at a formal dinner. Why not serve corn dogs as well if that is the case? As delicious as it is, corn-on-the-cob is clearly a casual-meal-type food and should be presented at meals consistent with its nature. But who is a gentleman to tell his generous hostess what courses to serve? No gentleman would—of course. Therefore, he must be prepared to correctly eat corn-on-the-cob if it is presented at a formal sit-down. Generally, a considerate host (to the extent that one would consider a host who serves corn-on-the-cob, considerate) will serve the vegetable with cob-holders already inserted into both ends (How considerate!). On other occasions, the little, two-tined implements, sometimes made of sterling silver, are placed on the left side of the plate-setting with the other forks. And when no cob-holders are provided, a gentleman must use both index fingers, with his thumbs serving as additional support, to hold the ends of the cob as he eats the corn. But cob, snob, it should be eaten as follows: Only three or four rows, running half the length of the cob, should be buttered and seasoned at a time. The cob is then picked up, held by the cob-holders or with the fingers as described above, and eaten. Additional butter and seasoning should be applied as described above in intervals as the prepared segments are eaten—as clean as possible—for having to observe another diner’s half-eaten kernels can be most unappetizing. When the entire cob has been eaten clean, or when no more is desired, the cob is placed to the upper left side of the plate from which one is eating, or, preferably, onto the separate plate on which the cob was served. If served with corn-holders, whether pre-inserted or not, they remain inserted in the ears, to be removed by the service staff.

Some guests, for various reasons (at least one being teeth-related), cannot, or prefer not to, eat corn directly from the cob. Such persons should stand the cob up on one end, supported by the fingers (or a cob-holder held in the fingers), in the plate, then and use a sharp knife to cut off three or four rows of kernels at a time. And after applying the desired seasoning, the kernels are conveyed to the mouth with a fork, as one would eat rice or peas.

So the moral of the story is that if a hostess insists on serving garden-fresh corn at a formal dinner, the kernels should be removed from the cobs in the kitchen, for who needs all the table-side drama described above just to enjoy a few, succulent kernels of corn?

 

 

The Artful Way to Eat an Artichoke at the Formal Dinner Table

Artichokes

There is art, if not also artifice, in the proper eating of an artichoke. Presented in all its prehistoric-looking, botanical glory, an artichoke, actually the flower bud of the artichoke plant, can prove intimidating or, at best, bewildering, to the novice. Traditionally, the “vegetable,” which resembles a cross between a pine cone and a breadfruit—or a sugar apple on steroids—is boiled or steam-cooked and presented on a salad plate with a separate, little bowl of melted butter or some other sauce or dip. A second salad plate is sometimes presented to serve as a depository for the fibrous remnants of the eaten leaves.

The leaves of an artichoke are always to be plucked off the bud and conveyed to the mouth by the fingers—no matter how formal the occasion. (Thank God for finger bowls!) Beginning at the bottom of the bud, each leaf is individually plucked by its tip. The base of each leaf is then dipped into the provided sauce and placed into the mouth as the tip of the leaf is held fast by the fingers. The succulent base of the leaf is then pulled through slightly clenched front teeth (incisors) so as to separate the flesh from the fibrous portions of the leaf. The fibrous portion of the leaf, still being held by the fingers, is then placed onto the extra plate or towards the upper left side of the plate on which the artichoke is presented if no extra plate has been provided. The process is continued, leaf by leaf, until all the leaves have been consumed and the heart of the bulb, arguably its most delicious part, is revealed.

Held in place by the fork, the hairlike covering of the heart should delicately be scraped away with the knife. At last, the “fond,” the base-core of the heart, is found! It is then eaten with knife and fork, flavored with the sauce.

The Elegant Ritual of the “Cleansing of the Palate” at a Formal Dinner

The Cleansing of the Palate

It is not uncommon at very formal meals where multiple courses are being served, for somewhere midway in the dinner, usually between the fish and meat courses, that a palate-cleanser is served—oftentimes a fruit sorbet (called “sherbet” in the United States) or granité of some sort. Theoretically, it refreshes the mouth and neutralizes the taste buds after the tongue has been teased with the various flavors of the first half of the meal. This mini course, which also prepares the palate for the many flavors to come in the second half of the meal, can be likened to intermission at a theatrical performance, or the changing of ends during a tie-breaker in a tennis match, or perhaps even a recess break in elementary school. But in addition to serving a practical purpose, the course should be remarkable and memorable—like a cameo appearance by a beautiful actress in a Hollywood drama.

The Correct Placement of Silverware When a Diner Must Take Temporary Leave of the Table; at the End of a Course; When Already-used Silverware must be Re-used; and When the Silverware Remains Unused

Placement of Eating Utensils When Taking Temporary Leave of the Table

When a gentleman must take temporary leave of the dining table, he places his silverware onto the dish from which he is eating, towards its right side. The knife is placed to the right of the fork, blade facing inwards (towards the fork), and the fork is placed alongside the knife, to its left, tines upward. Both utensils are aligned vertically. (See above subsection on “The Soup Course” for placement of soup spoons). Other authorities hold that the fork should be placed vertically onto the left side of the dish from which the gentleman is eating, with the knife, blade facing inwards, placed vertically onto the right side of the dish. But as with other rules of etiquette, one general rule is preferred over two or more alternatives, especially when the alternatives give rise to additional issues. For example, with the “fork on the left side of the dish, knife on the right side of the dish” rule, what then is a gentleman to do if he is only using a fork? Place it onto the left side, or onto the right side of the dish? So once again, the “right side only” rule seems more consistent: When using only one eating-implement, be it fork or spoon, the same right-side placement applies—a spoon or a fork being used by itself is simply placed vertically onto the right side of the dish, bowl/tines facing upward. (And contrary to yet other “authorities,” aligning the utensils and placing them vertically onto the center of the dish would be absurd and therefore completely incorrect since it would result in the placement of the utensils atop the uneaten portion of the course, conspicuously—and unappetizingly—awaiting the diner’s return to the table).

And, again, when soup is served in a cup with a spoon, both placed atop a plate—as is correctly the case—the soup spoon should be discretely wiped clean with the lips before being placed onto the plate, vertically at the right side of the cup, the bowl of the spoon facing upwards. The spoon should not be left in the cup. The same rule applies to when soup is served in a soup bowl presented atop a plate. When soup is served in a soup plate, however, the spoon is placed vertically atop the right-side flat surface of the soup plate since the soup plate is likely to be of equal or almost-equal dimensions as the service-plate upon which it sits, thereby making it almost impossible to align the spoon onto the service-plate, at the right side of the soup plate. But as with other soup dishes, the soup spoon should not be left in the soup (unless the soup plate is designed such that its “flat surface” is so slanted as to render the spoon incapable of being securely placed thereon. In that rare instance, the soup spoon must be left in the soup (but towards the right side of the dish)—out of necessity—the way the spoon will also have to be left towards the inside-right-side of the soup plate at the end of the course.

When a spoon and fork are being used to eat spaghetti (as is oftentimes done in the United States, but rarely in Italy) (See “Spaghetti” below) and leave must be taken from the table, the spoon and fork are vertically aligned and placed adjacent to each other onto the right side of the dish, with the spoon to the left side of the fork since when eating spaghetti in such a manner, the spoon is always held in the left hand. Upon the gentleman’s return to the table to resume eating his spaghetti, he simply picks up his utensils and continues eating. (But see below regarding the placement of the spaghetti spoon/fork at the end of the course). A waiter or table-assistant who unwittingly attempts to remove a temporarily unattended, unfinished dish should be advised against doing so by the host or by a diner sitting adjacent to the temporarily absent diner.

 

The Correct Placement of Eating-Utensils at the End of a Course

How used silverware is to be placed onto the dish at the end of a course is a matter of both form and function. The used eating-utensils should be placed onto the dish, aligned vertically towards the right side of the dish, so that as the table assistant approaches from the right side to retrieve the dish, holding it at its periphery, his thumb can easily secure the silverware, while his four fingers are placed under the dish to steady it from its underside. While some authorities allow for the adjacent, vertical placement of the used silverware in the center of the dish, such a placement is impractical for the person tasked with removing the dish since he is not able to readily secure the silverware with his thumb as the dish is being hoisted and removed. But that addresses only the functional component. In terms of form, the placement of the silverware at the end of a course is inspired by the manner in which the table is set at the commencement of the meal. As such, the knife is placed to the right of the fork, the blade pointing inward, and the fork is placed alongside the knife, tines pointing upward. On the rare occasions where a knife, fork, and spoon are used to eat a particular course (for example, poached pear à la mode), the spoon is placed to the right side of the knife, bowl upwards; and the knife is placed in the middle, blade pointing inward, with the fork next to it at its left, tines upward. (See  also above subsection, the “The Soup Course”; See also below subsection on “How to Eat Certain Foods”—discussion  on “Iced-tea” spoons and straws).

Unlike the placement of the spaghetti spoon-and-fork combination when temporary leave of the table must be taken, at the end of a spaghetti course where both spoon and fork were used, the spoon, its bowl turned upwards, is placed to the adjacent right of the fork, its tines pointing upward, both implements aligned vertically towards the right side of the dish. The rationale for this placement is that at the end of a course, the objective is to return items to the position they occupied at the commencement of the course.  And when a spoon and fork are presented together as the eating-implements for a spaghetti course, or for any other course, the spoon, consistent with table-setting in general, is situated to the right of the fork.

 

When Already-used Silverware Must Be Re-used for a Subsequent Course

On occasion, due to insufficient silverware, diners are asked to use the same silverware for a subsequent course.  In such unfortunate instances, the eating-implements are correctly placed directly onto the table (if no place-plate has been provided). If a place-plate has been provided, the eating-implements are placed onto the place-plate as described in the various scenarios presented above. When no place-plate is provided, however, and the eating-implements must be placed directly onto the table (if no placemat is available) awaiting the subsequent course, the eating-implements are placed together towards the right side of where the subsequent dish will be placed:  In the case of a knife and fork, the knife is placed vertically with its blade facing the space to be occupied by the dish, with the tines of the fork, facing upward, placed onto the blade-portion of the knife, the fork’s handle laying askew to that of the knife; a single spoon or fork is placed vertically towards the right side of where subsequent dish will be placed, bowl/tines facing upward. Holding one’s already-used silverware in one’s hand awaiting the arrival of the subsequent course is a definite no-no:   It renders one looking ravenous.

 

Unused Silverware

Any eating-utensil designated for a particular course but not used by the diner should be left on the table, where it will be retrieved by the table assistant when the dishes for the course are being removed, or at the end of the meal when the table is being cleared.

 

The Proper Way to Taste Food from Another Person’s Dish at a Formal Dining Table

Tasting Another Person’s Food at the Table

At a formal, private dinner, or even a formal, public one, rarely will the occasion arise for one person to taste another person’s food at the table since the same menu is generally served to all. Besides, the notion of “tasting” from another person’s plate in a formal setting simply would not “sit” right with most people—the way one would not drink beer directly from a bottle at a black-tie event. Yes, beer may arguably “taste” better when drunk directly from the bottle, but it certainly would indicate a lack of good “taste” if drunk accordingly in a formal setting. In less formal settings, however, as in restaurants for example, where close friends or couples are dining together and different menu offerings have been selected, the occasion often arises for someone to request or be offered to taste another person’s food. The rules of etiquette do not prohibit such generosity under the circumstances; but there is a right way and there is a wrong way to do it—even between the most intimate of lovers or friends. And a gentleman must know the right way, of course….

The correct way is to use a clean utensil to collect the food to be tasted, then pass the food to the taster, handle first. Expert assistance should be engaged for more complicated transfers of food, however. If a whole, unwanted side-order, for example, is to be given to a dining companion, the table assistant should be summoned to the table, where he should be asked to provide a salad plate-size plate or dish onto which the side-order should be placed. If the request is made at the time the food orders are brought to the table, the table assistant will transfer the side-order. Once eating has commenced, however, the plate should be requested, but the sharer should transfer the side-order himself since it would be inappropriate for a waiter to “meddle” with food that is already being eaten.

Reaching across the table with one’s fork to “taste” food in another person’s plate—not matter how intimate the people may be away from the dining table—is to be avoided. And worse yet, to pick up one’s plate and extend it across the table in order to share or receive a portion of a dish is simply unacceptable at any dinner table, formal or otherwise.

The Order of a Formal Meal–from the last meal served on the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912, to a formal meal in a modern home

The Order of the Formal Dinner

The order and manner in which food is presented at a formal dinner varies from culture to culture, country to country. And to further complicate matters, the order in which food is presented on the menus of restaurants that offer national cuisines oftentimes varies from the traditional order of food presentation in the respective countries. It is therefore necessary for a modern-day gentleman to have a basic understanding of the various gastronomical traditions of the world if he is to successfully navigate the ever-increasingly eclectic world of social dining. (See chapter, “International Customs”).

In the Gilded Age, it was not uncommon for hostesses to present ten-course meals—with all the required eating and drinking implements proudly presented on the dining table at the commencement of the meal. Some hostesses were renowned for setting their dinner tables with 24 pieces of silver and 10 glasses for each guest. It was a time when less was not more; it was less. The April 12, 1912 dinner on board the RMS Titanic, regarded by many as the final dinner of the Age, featured:

First Course

Hors D’ Oeuvres

Oysters

Second Course

Consommé Olga

Cream of Barley

Third Course

Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers

Fourth Course

Filet Mignons Lili

Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise

Vegetable Marrow Farci

Fifth Course

Lamb, Mint Sauce

Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce

Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes

Green Peas

Creamed Carrots

Boiled Rice

Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes

Sixth Course

Punch Romaine

Seventh Course

Roast Squabs & Cress

Eight Course

Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette

Ninth Course

Pâté de Foie Gras

Tenth Course

Waldorf Pudding

Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly

Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs

French Ice Cream

Each course was served with a different, complementary wine. And after the Tenth Course, fresh fruits and cheeses were made available. Thereafter, cigars were offered with a choice of coffee, port, or distilled liquors.

Today, however, even the most formal of meals in the finest of homes are limited to six, or, perhaps, seven courses, and no more than three eating implements are presented on each side of the plate setting at the beginning of the meal: The additional implements are brought to the table as needed, when needed.

The Menu Card

Some hosts take delight in surprising their guests with each meal presented. Many guests, however, especially those with modest appetites, prefer to know the scope of the dinner before it begins so that they can take portions—if the dishes are presented à la russe—which will not exhaust their appetites before the culmination of the meal at dessert. And the most practical way to afford guests advance notice of the courses is via menu cards. At large dinners, menu cards, either engraved or written in calligraphy, are placed onto the table, one between every two guests, or sometimes onto each place plate under the napkin. At smaller, private, formal dinners in a home, there is usually one menu card, which is placed before the hostess.

The typical order of a meal in a fine restaurant in the United States is: appetizer, soup, salad, main course (also called the entrée), dessert, and coffee/tea/after-dinner drink. That, however, unbeknownst to many Americans, is not the classic order in which food is to be presented at a formal dinner in Western culture.

A 21st-century, Formal, Six-Course Dinner

Appetizer

Soup

Fish Course

Meat or Fowl Course

Salad

Dessert

Coffee/Tea

After-dinner Drink

In some countries, or regions thereof, a sherbet/sorbet/granité is served between the fish and meat/fowl courses to “cleanse the palate.” And long gone are the days when a game course (of some wild meat) would be served after the meat course. Today, if game is to be served, it will be presented as a substitute for the meat/fowl course.

In Italy, one of the founding fathers of Western European culture, the typical order of a formal meal would include a course of pasta (in the south) or risotto (in the north) because of the prominence of those staples in Italian cuisine.

Antipasto (appetizer)

Soup/Pasta/Risotto

Main Course (Meat, Fish, Poultry)

Salad

Assorted Cheeses

Dessert

Fresh Fruits

Coffee

Digestivo

The Correct Way To Use Finger Bowls–one of the last vestiges of truly elegant dining

Finger Bowls

Finger bowls are, to a large extent, relics of an elegant past. By the 1950s, the appearance of a finger bowl—even on the most elegant dinner tables across the globe—had become worthy of remark. And though they are even more rarely seen today, a gentleman of the world must be familiar with them and their proper usage, for misuse of the finger bowls is perhaps more responsible for social finger-pointing than any other item on a well-appointed dining table.

There are references to silver finger bowls as early as the 13th century; but by the beginning of the 20th century, despite their rising popularity, they were under attack—especially the brass ones used by the restaurants of the day—as being both unsanitary and decadent. In 1913, the Buffalo, New York Health Department claimed that brass finger bowls could not be properly sanitized; and in 1915, the city of Omaha, Nebraska outlawed the use of finger bowls except for those made of single-use, disposable materials such as paper. Then in 1917 and again in 1943, as part of the war efforts, the Food Administration encouraged restaurants to minimize their usage of tableware in general, so finger bowls, which had long been regarded as a formal, ostentatious luxury, was the first casualty of war. Eventually, finger bowls, even in private homes, fell into disuse.

A finger bowl is generally a little smaller and shallower than a the typical soup bowl and is presented half-filled with scented water so that guests may unobtrusively rinse their fingertips of any food aromas or residue—while sitting at the table—before proceeding with the meal. (See “The Desert Course” above).

There are two occasions when finger bowls are likely to be presented at the dinner table: immediately following a course featuring shellfish in the shell, such as lobster or mussels; and nearing the end of the meal, just before the dessert course. After a shellfish course, the finger bowl will be presented on a small, saucer-sized plate, with a cloth doily, usually made of white linen, beneath the bowl. The bowl will contain hot water, usually with a “wagon wheel” of fresh lime or lemon floating atop. When presented just before dessert, the finger bowl, similarly presented, will contain cold water, usually with the petals of fresh flowers (never slices of lemon or lime) floating atop.

But no matter how pretty or delightful, the water in a finger bowl is never to be drunk! Nor are the citrus slices or floral petals to be eaten or removed from the bowl! To do so would precipitate a gentleman’s social demise. Instead, he should dip his fingertips, one hand at a time, into the water so as to gently refresh his hands. But propriety must be exercised in this most delicate, elegant ritual since the gentle washing should never appear to be an aggressive ablution. With moistened fingers, a gentleman may dampen his lips, thereafter using the napkin from his lap to dry his hands and pat-dry his lips.

Some hostesses avoid the whole matter of finger bowls by offering hot towelettes moistened with fragrant water, a practice popular in some Asian countries. (Towelettes are far less likely to be unwittingly drunk or eaten!) Generally, the neatly rolled or folded towelettes are presented on a tray, where they picked up with tongs and presented to each guest, who receives his towel into his hand. The guest then unfurls the towelette, pat-wipes first his lips, then wipes his hands. (A whole, sailor bath-type wipe-down of the face is most inappropriate and is to be avoided). The person distributing the towelettes then makes the rounds again to collect them. Upon being approached by the table assistant, the guest either places the unarranged towelette directly onto the tray or allows the attendant to take the used towelette from his hands with the aid of the tongs. The used towelette should never be placed onto the table. Instead, it should be held in the hands until retrieved by the table assistant. In less formal settings, packaged towelettes are offered. It is best to open the package at its seam so that the used towelette can be fit back into its packaging to be collected and discarded.

What to Expect at the Formal Dining Table

Overview

The manners associated with eating are almost as varied as the great cultures and cuisines of the world that give them rise. But because of the prominence of Western culture in the modern world, and because this is a book on modern manners, the focus of this chapter is table manners from the Western perspective. In the chapter titled “International Customs,” some of the eating customs unique to and distinguishing of many of the world’s great cultures are explored.

 Also, in this chapter, because of the modern tendency to minimize gender distinctions and because of the increasing prevalence of single and same-gender heads of households, the words “host” and “hostess” are to be understood jointly, severally, and/or interchangeably.

 

Manners at the Table

If there is one place where manners are put to the test, it is the formal dinner table—a veritable theater of war, albeit a social one. There, at the dinner table, placement, positioning, timing, maneuvering, artifice, stratagem, and diplomacy are all let loose in a hand-to-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face combat of sorts, where everyone is at once gladiator and spectator. And like in the great coliseums of the ancient world, there are casualties—usually in the form of a bright-eyed young man who unwittingly says or does the improper thing to his social demise: holding a glass of red wine by its stem rather than by its bowl; dicing his entire filet mignon into “convenient,” bite-size pieces upon being served; placing his fork tines-downward onto the plate after enjoying his salad of hand-picked spinach leaves and asparagus spears au vinaigrette; not knowing that his bread plate is the one situated to the upper left side of his dinner plate; turning his cup upside down onto its saucer as a tacit—and tactless—announcement that he will not be having coffee. It is at the dinner table that the proverbial cream rises to the top, wheat is separated from chaff, and fish and fowl align accordingly. And it is at the dinner table where all goes aflutter when birds of a feather realize that one not of like plumage is within their midst.

Many 21st-century young men would agree that the pen is mightier than the sword—especially these days when very few men tote sabres. But the verdict is still out as to whether the force of the pen exceeds that of a well-handled dinner fork, for it is not uncommon for young graduates from some of the world’s finest universities to lose appointments with some of the world’s most revered firms because of an unsuccessful dinner interview—on account of substandard table manners. No reasonable young man would engage a game of neighborhood basketball or sit down to a chess match without knowing the rules of the game. And the same should apply to sitting down to the formal dinner table, where the stakes may be even higher.

The “formal dinner”—in the “classic” sense of the term—has almost become a thing of the past, being regarded today as one of the last vestiges of the “Gilded Age.” Who today, for example, has a dining room large enough to seat the traditional 34 for a formal dinner? And even if one has the space, who has the china and the crystal and the table linens and the silver and the service staff (One for every three guests!) and the chef or cuisinière and the…. The modern-day alternative, therefore, is to hold such dinners in a suitable restaurant or in an appropriate room in a great hotel (Or better yet, to be the invitee rather than the invitor!) And if such an event simply must be held in a private home, a reputable catering service is usually engaged. But whether in a private home or in a public space of formal dining, a gentleman must know how to conduct himself at what is oftentimes considered the ultimate test of civility:  the formal dinner.

A “formal dinner,” as it has come to be understood in the 21st century, is one during which guests sit and are served by table attendants. While the table manners appropriate for a formal dinner are separate and somewhat distinct from those suitable for a July 4th backyard barbeque in the United States or a crayfish-and-schnapps party in Sweden in August, manners at the formal dinner table serve as the high-water mark, with diluted versions thereof being employed at the less formal gastronomical events—the way haute couture tends to inspire and inform prêt-à-porte in the world of fashion.

The Layout of a Well-Set Table

Art is perhaps best defined as that which is skillfully executed such that it appeals to the aesthetic, the intellect, the emotions, and/or the senses. As such, almost anything can be elevated to the level of art—provided that it is done with skill.

In the art of warfare, reconnaissance is a key ingredient of a successful campaign:  A soldier should be as familiar with the topography of the battlefield as with the weapons in the arsenal of his adversary. Likewise, in the art of formal fare, a young gentleman should have advanced understanding of the layout of a typical dinner table with its sometimes-formidable flatware—where those implements for eating are to be positioned, how and when they are to be deployed, then, finally, decommissioned. And as witticisms are fired across the table, as bottles of champagne pop open, and as guests explode in laughter and merriment—with all the din that typically accompanies dinner—a young gentleman’s most faithful ally through it all will be knowledge; for when it comes to handling oneself elegantly at the dinner table, nothing triumphs over experience. At the formal dinner table, being forewarned is truly being forearmed.

The general rule for setting a table is that forks are to be situated to the left of the plate, while spoons and knives should be to the right, the logic being that though people use both hands to eat, certain things are done exclusively with the left hand, while certain other things are done exclusively with the right hand—thus the left-side, right-side placement. While in the United States a person eating with a knife and fork simultaneously will take the knife into his right hand to cut his food as he holds the food in place with the fork held in his left hand, thereafter laying the knife onto the plate as he switches the fork to his right hand to convey food to his mouth, in Europe and most of the rest of the world that uses knives and forks simultaneously, the fork is always held in the left hand and the knife in the right. (Of course, when no knife is involved, the fork is held exclusively in the right hand).

But regardless of the logic behind the left-side, right-side setting of a table, hands down, the greatest cause for consternation in the mind of an inexperienced young man is:  not knowing which eating implements are to be used for the various courses presented before him.

Very few hostesses today will set their tables like their Victorian-era ancestors, who sometimes brandished as many as eight forks to the left of each guest’s plate at the commencement of the meal. But a gentleman, especially one who dines cross-culturally (and many do nowadays), must always expect the unexpected. So whether a hostess has unleashed her entire ancestral silver inheritance upon her guests, or has exercised minimalistic chic and reserve as defined by the modern era, one rule remains constant:  Start with the silverware farthest from the plate; then proceed—implement by implement as each successive course is presented—towards the plate. But alas, sometimes due to innocent oversight, the person setting the table makes a mistake. In such instances, it helps if a gentleman is familiar with the various types of eating implements so that he, with the aid of the menu card or upon being presented with the dish, can select the appropriate implement despite its misplacement. It would behoove a gentleman, therefore, to know the difference between a fish knife and dinner knife, or an oyster fork and a salad fork, for example, such that he would not dare use them for any other purpose. Of course, when doubt rears its unsavory head, a young man may use his peripheral vision to see what implement those in his immediate vicinity are using; but  the preferred approach is to be independently informed since there is no guarantee—especially these days—that the tablemate is any more the wiser.

Then, of course, there are those rogue implements—those forks, knives, and spoons, such as the seafood fork, the butter knife, or the tea spoon—that are not usually nicely and neatly aligned in formation on either side of the plate. They are off elsewhere—missing in action or assigned to outposts. But again, logic accounts for their apparent AWOL status. Basically, those are the implements that do not have right-hand, left-hand counterparts:  They are lone rangers. Consequently, if they were lined up in formation with the other implements that flank the plate, the unwitting diner, accustomed to reaching for two implements simultaneously—one from each side of the plate—would retrieve them along with an implement designated for the another course. So to simplify matters, most hosts place those rogue implements out of “harm’s way,” away from the fray:  The seafood fork is laid, askew, onto the soup spoon, completely away from the other forks—thereby being one of the few exceptions to the “forks on the left” rule; the butter knife is placed  horizontally across the “northern” portion of the bread plate; and teaspoons are brought to the table—on the right side of the saucer that supports the teacup—when tea or coffee is to be served at the dining table.

 

Dinner is Served!

When guests enter the dining room, they will encounter a table already decorated and set to receive them. The formal dinner table will feature a centerpiece, traditionally comprised of flowers and lit candles; but modern hosts and hostesses also use the centerpiece as an opportunity for creative expression beyond that dictated by tradition. Whether traditional or trendy, the centerpiece should not be trite; instead, it should surprise and delight even the most seasoned socialite—without obstructing the view or flow of conversation across the table.

Each guest’s place will be designated by a place plate, onto which the folded dinner napkin will have been laid (Alternatively, the folded napkin may be placed to the immediate left of the forks, with its lengthwise fold facing left; or the napkin may be stylishly arranged and placed in the water goblet, though that placement precludes the filling of the water glasses prior to the arrival of guests to the table). To the left of each place plate will be the forks for the various courses, and to the right will be the spoons and knives.  The tines of the forks and the bowls of the spoons will be facing upwards; the blades of the knives will be facing towards their corresponding place plate—not towards the diner to the right, since it is always impolite to “present” a blade to a friend.  Today, unlike the opulent, arguably excessive Victorian era, no more than three of each type of utensil should flank the place plate—except that the oyster fork, which is either placed with the other forks or, as is oftentimes the case, laid askew (in the “4 o’clock” position) across the spoon farthest from the plate, that spoon usually being the soup spoon, may account for a fourth fork. If, in keeping with the “no more than three” rule, the number of courses to be served exceeds the utensils present on the table at the commencement of the dinner, the additional silverware will be brought to the table as the subsequent courses are presented.

At the formal table, the dessert implements will flank the place plate or, in keeping with the “maximum of three” rule, be brought to the table at the appropriate time. In some less formal settings, however, the dessert implements, as dictated by the nature of the dessert, are placed horizontally, centered directly “north” of the place plate, when the table is being set. When both spoon and fork are to be used  (to eat apple pie à la mode, for example), the spoon is placed immediately “north” of, but directly parallel to, the fork, the spoon’s handle pointing towards the right (since spoons are otherwise always on the right side) and the fork’s handle pointing towards the left.

(It should be noted that in less formal settings, such as picnics, or at simple dinners or lunches where only one spoon, fork, and knife will be used, the folded napkin is placed just right of the plate, with the eating implements placed, centered, atop the napkin:  the fork, tines up, to the left side of the napkin; the knife to the immediate right side of the fork, with its blade facing the fork; and the spoon, with its bowl upwards, placed to the immediate right of the knife. When only a knife and fork are presented, both are placed atop the napkin, the fork, tines up, to the left of the knife, the knife’s blade facing the fork. When only a fork or a spoon is presented, it is centered atop the napkin, tines/bowl upwards. In America, where a fork and spoon may be used together to eat spaghetti, the fork is placed  to the left of the spoon, tines/bowl upwards).

To the upper left side of the place plate will be the little, saucer-sized, bread plate, onto which the butter knife is placed horizontally within the “northern” half of the plate, midway between the “horizon” and the “north pole,” blade facing “south.” Until the middle of the 20th century, bread, if at all served at a formal dinner, was laid directly onto the tablecloth towards the left side of each diner’s plate. As the century progressed, however, bread plates became the norm, thankfully, since bread and its attendant crumbs left onto  an impeccably dressed table only seemed to distract from an otherwise beautiful presentation.

And while on the topic of bread, gentlemen should take particular note of bread-plate etiquette:  It is not uncommon for people to improperly help themselves to bread from the wrong bread plate, the bread plate to their right side usually being the one “violated.” In such instances, a gentleman should discretely inform the “intruder” of the violation, directing him to his bread plate—the one to his immediate left. “Excuse me, sir, but you have inadvertently helped yourself to my bread. Your bread plate is to your left. Table settings can be so complicated sometimes…,” is usually sufficient to settle the minor mix-up. While the matter may seem trifling, its discrete resolution is preferable to a scenario where the blind leads the blind, with each person successively taking bread from the wrong bread plate because of one person’s faux pas.

At large, private gatherings, coffee and/or tea is rarely served at the dinner table at the end of the meal—mainly because at such gatherings, serving those beverages in the living room or some other suitable space allows guests to intimately interact with people besides the two between whom they sat during the dinner. In the Victorian ear, when interaction between the sexes was much more restricted, women and men would separate after dessert, women going into the parlor for tea and coffee, while men would remain at the dinner table to indulge in coffee, cigars, and after-dinner drinks. But even today, if coffee is served at the dinner table at a large dinner in a private home, the teacup, saucer, and teaspoon for each guest will be brought to the table at the end of the meal, usually with, or immediately after, the  dessert course. At small, private, formal dinners, however, where the table is large enough and space permits, the teacup, with its saucer and spoon, may be on the table from the commencement of the meal. In such cases, it is placed slightly above and to the left of the bread-and-butter plate, with its handle towards the right and the teaspoon placed onto the saucer, to the right side of the teacup. Then, when coffee and tea will be served, it is placed directly before the guest by the table attendant. Some authorities insist that the proper placement of the teacup and its saucer—when it is placed onto the table before the commencement of the meal—is towards the lower right side of the spoons and knives. That placement, however,  creates unnecessary congestion in an area of the place setting that is already congested and need not be additionally cluttered by items that will not be used until the absolute end of the meal. Slightly to the upper left of the bread plate, however, is a more open area with much less activity during the course of the meal. But regardless of where the tea/coffee dishes are placed, if a gentleman does not intend to have coffee or tea, he does not, like a defiant toddler in his “terrible twos,” turn his teacup topsy-turvy into the saucer! Instead, he simply indicates to the table attendant, when tea and coffee are being served, that he does not wish for either. Also, at many formal, public banquets and dinners, where guests will leave shortly after the meal, or at wedding receptions, for example, coffee and tea will usually be served at the table. In such such instances, each guest’s tea setting—the teacup, the saucer, and the teaspoon—will sometimes be on the table from the commencement of the meal.

There are very few rules carved in stone regarding how glasses are to be positioned on the formal dining table. Several factors must be considered:  the relative sizes of the various glasses; the amount of glasses to be placed onto the table; the order of the meal; the frequency with which a particular glass is likely to be used during the meal; and the available space, so as to avoid mishaps. What is not open for discussion, however, is that the glasses are to be placed to the upper right side of the place plate, just above the placement of the knives and spoons; and the water glass must lead the formation, which proceeds from right of the water glass. While a young, inexperienced gentleman, upon entering a dining room and seeing six or seven glasses set before each place plate may experience some degree of trepidation, he need not be overly concerned, for at a formal dinner, wine will be poured into the appropriate glass by the butler, the sommelier, or a table assistant, so the young man need only take his cue from what is being poured and proceed accordingly. It would behoove a young man, however, to know generally about stemware:  The largest drinking glass on the table will be the water goblet, followed in size by the red wine glass, then the white wine glass; the smallest glass will be the sherry glass, which is usually V-shaped; and champagne is served in either a wide, shallow-bowled glass or in a flute, which is taller and much narrower. The glasses suitable for after-dinner drinks that will be served at the table are never on the table during the meal. They are, instead, brought to the table after it has been cleared of the dinner settings. And as such, the person serving the various after-dinner drinks will be sure to pour them into the appropriate glasses.

 At simple meals of three or four courses, even if formal, only one or two wines will generally be served. In such instances, the water glass will be placed above the knives, followed on its right side by the red wine glass and then the white wine glass. This formation takes into consideration frequency (water first), the order in which the food is presented (white wine glass preceding red wine glass, from outside in), and the size of the glasses (from largest to smallest). Some hostesses—especially when many courses are being served, each with its accompanying glass—prefer to place the glasses in descending order based on size, with the largest glass (the water goblet) placed first, to the upper right side of the place plate, just above the knives, followed by the other glasses according to their relative size, ending with the little sherry glass, which is used during the soup course—if the soup itself is flavored or compatible with sherry. Other hostesses prefer “triangle” formations, and “diamond” formations. But again, at formal meals, guests will not pour their own wines, and it is the responsibility of the server to know which glass is appropriate for which course.

Some hosts prefer to have the water glasses filled before guests enter the dining room. That custom seems to be disappearing, however, since there is little need or justification for it. After all, pouring iced water from a pitcher or carafe is relatively quick, easy, and can even be done with some ceremony—to  the delight of guests. And though long gone are the days when enemy-guests were routinely poisoned at the dinner table by dishes specially “prepared” for them, frankly, no one, not even today, prefers food or drink left unattended, no matter how briefly. Some hosts also prefer to have the first course on the table when guests enter the dining room. That tradition, too, needs to be reconsidered for several reasons:  A hot first course can become cold, a cold one can become lukewarm, and a fresh one can sometimes wilt by the time guests locate and take their seats, especially at a relatively large party; appetizers somehow seem less appetizing after guests have been leaning over them in pursuit of their names on place cards; and food already placed onto the table impedes ice-breaking conversation between unfamiliar dinner-partners since people begin eating immediately rather than engaging in conversation as the first course is being served.

 

 

What To Do With Pits And Bones At The Dining Table

Fruit Pits and Bones

The general consensus of the experts on etiquette is that the “graveyard” of the dinner plate is its upper left side; it is there that all things inedible must go.  It is there, for example, that pits are placed and bones are laid to rest—after they have been eaten clean. But it is the manner in which they are placed there that may sometimes be a matter for debate.  Pits and bones large enough such that they will not slip through the tines of a fork are removed from the mouth—again, only after they have been eaten clean—by placing the fork, tines held sideways and upward, slightly against the lips, so that the item in the mouth, with the aid of the tongue and the lips, may be carefully released unto the tines of the fork, thereafter to be carefully lowered onto the plate. When items are so small or thin that they would slip through the tines of a fork, they are removed from the mouth with the fingers or released from the mouth into a loosely fisted hand, depending on the item. A thin fish bone, for example, would be removed with the thumb and index finger then placed onto the plate, while the seed of an orange would be deposited directly from the mouth into a loosely fisted hand and then released onto the plate.  Never—ever—should one’s napkin be used in an attempt to discretely conceal items being removed from one’s mouth or to conceal items once they have been removed from one’s mouth.