Photo by Sheng P.
Developing the habit of taking a moment to observe which starting method will be operative at an event can be very useful in preventing awkward mistakes. It will ensure, for example, that an agnostic guest never finds himself with laden fork pushed halfway into his mouth just as the host begins to say grace.
There are two common approaches to determining how to begin, and, whichever method is used, it should be followed at the start of each course of the meal. At smaller events, it is common to wait to take a bite until everyone at the table has received a serving and the hostess has begun eating. Sometimes a hostess may urge her guests to eat immediately upon receiving the food. This is especially true at larger events, where waiting for everyone would allow it to get cold. In this case, wait until one or two of the other guests are ready to begin as well, so that you are not the only person at the table who is eating.
(“Elbows, elbows, if you’re able — keep your elbows off the table!”)
Proper posture at the table is very important. Sit up straight, with your arms held near your body. You should neither lean on the back of the chair nor bend forward to place the elbows on the table. It is permissible to lean forward slightly every now and then and press the elbows very lightly against the edge of the table, if it is obvious that you are not using them for support.
Dip the spoon into the soup, moving it away from the body, until it is about two-thirds full, then sip the liquid (without slurping) from the side of the spoon (without inserting the whole bowl of the spoon into the mouth). The theory behind this is that a diner who scoops the spoon toward himself is more likely to slosh soup onto his lap, although it is difficult to imagine what sort of eater would stroke the spoon so forcefully through the liquid that he creates waves. It is perfectly fine to tilt the bowl slightly — again away from the body — to get the last spoonful or two of soup.
It is not very well known, undoubtedly because it is no longer in fashion to serve it, that if you are given bouillon in a soup cup with a handle, you may pick up the cup and sip the broth directly from it, even if a soupspoon has been provided. If there are any bits of vegetables or meat in the bouillon, they should be eaten with the spoon before you begin sipping.
The finger bowl has hovered on the brink of obsolescence for over a century without entirely disappearing. This is probably why it provides the critical obstacle in the story of the man, either a foreigner or a bumpkin (depending on the teller), who is a guest at a formal dinner party. When a servant offers him a bowl of water at the end of the meal, he drinks it. The hostess presiding at the event is so poised and utterly well-mannered that, without skipping a beat, she drinks her bowl down, too, thus saving him the embarrassment of realizing the extent of his faux pas. This tale has reached almost the status of urban legend, and it is told in many variations. The hostess may be a family matriarch or someone very well-known, say Eleanor Roosevelt or Queen Victoria, but the finger bowl seems to be a constant.
Fortunately, the main difficulty lies in recognizing the finger bowl when you see it, which, at formal events, will be either before or after the dessert course. Often there is a slice of lemon floating in the water. Once you are presented with one, all you need to know is that you should delicately dip your fingertips in the water (no scrubbing), dry them off with your napkin (equally delicately), and set the bowl to the side of your plate.
Take note, when you are the host of a party, of the way you offer additional servings to your guests. Urging someone to “have another (or a second or third) helping” can be seen as an unpleasant insinuation that the guest has eaten too much. It is best to phrase each offer of food as if the dish has just been brought out for the first time.
Please Pass the Salt
The proper response to this very simple sounding request is to pick up both the salt and the pepper and to place them on the table within reach of the person next to you, who will do the same, and so on, until they reach the person who asked for them. They are not passed hand-to-hand, nor should anyone other than the original requester sprinkle her food when she has the shakers in her possession. The reason for this, as Judith Martin points out more than once, is that American etiquette is not about efficiency. Often, the most refined action is that which requires the greatest number of steps to carry it out (as in, for example, the zig-zag method of handling a fork and knife).
Removing Inedible Items from the Mouth
The general rule for removing food from your mouth is that it should go out the same way it went in. Therefore, olive pits can be delicately dropped onto an open palm before putting them onto your plate, and a piece of bone discovered in a bite of chicken should be returned to the plate by way of the fork. Fish is an exception to the rule. It is fine to remove the tiny bones with your fingers, since they would be difficult to drop from your mouth onto the fork. And, of course, if what you have to spit out will be terrifically ugly — an extremely fatty piece of meat that you simply can’t bring yourself to swallow, for example — it will be necessary to surreptitiously spit it into your napkin, so that you can keep it out of sight.