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Etiquette Of The Table

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" EAT at your table as you would eat at the table of the king," said Confucius; and the advice is as good now as when it was given nearly three thousand years ago. If you would learn to behave well in company you must behave well at home; otherwise the polite manners which you assume when you are abroad will fit you much as a workman's Sunday suit fits him. He wears it with an unaccustomed air which shows far more plainly than words that this is not his habitual dress; and behavior that is kept ,for high days and holidays betrays itself in a like manner.

A still better reason for uniformity in one's manners is, that it savors of hypocrisy to behave in one way at home and in a totally different way in society. A greater amount of ease and freedom may certainly be permitted in one's own house; but the keynote of a person's behavior should always be the same: self-respect and respect for others must never be forgotten.

What an excellent custom of the old French monarchy it was, that of breakfasting in public, and giving the people every day a lesson from the very best authorities on the proper way to behave at the table! Whether the French king who first set this fashion had read Confucius is more than doubtful; but as great minds think alike, he was probably actuated by the same general idea, and determined: to show his subjects a good example in the way of manners, what-ever his views of morals may have been.

Too much stress cannot be laid on the importance of refinement at the table, both in manners and in the laying and service of the table itself. The habit of eating together and at stated times is one of the distinguishing marks that separate civilized men from savages, and a man's behavior at table is a pretty sure indication of his social status.

The negroes on the old Southern plantations could hardly be induced to eat their meals save irregularly and by snatches. To them the idea of sitting down to a regularly set table at a formal meal was extremely irksome. As extremes meet, the first gentleman in England, the late King Edward the Seventh, also found the customs of society too formal, and he very wisely shortened 'the length of a fashionable dinner from three or four hours to an hour or an hour and a half, two hours being the very outside limit now allowed.

In a subsequent chapter, " Children, and how they should behave at the Table," many gaucheries of which grown people as well as children are often guilty are mentioned. Still, the catalogue there given is not an exhaustive one, and a few hints on the etiquette of the table will not be out of place here. Imprimis, one should not speak, unless in jest, of " table manners; " the expression is disliked in good society, as are also the kindred ones, " parlor manners," "company manners," etc.

Never come late to a dinner. The old rule was that guests should arrive within five minutes of the appointed hour, either before or after. The present rule in New York is to come five minutes after the hour, for a formal dinner. One should never, in any case, arrive more than fifteen minutes after the time specified in the invitations. Gentlemen should not take their seats until the ladies are seated, and each gentleman should pull out the chair for the lady next him, and assist her to draw it up to the table before seating himself. This is not always necessary, as the servants assume the duty where there are a number of them in attendance.

One should remember to assume a proper attitude at table, for it is very awkward to bend over your plate or to lean over between mouthfuls. On the other hand, it does not look well to lean back in one's chair when eating, or to sit up as stiffly as if one had just swallowed a ramrod. The best way is to sit well back and in the middle of the chair, leaning forward very slightly.

It is not allowable to ask for a second helping of soup or fish, and the reason of the rule is that these courses are preliminary to the pièce de résistance of the dinner; therefore most people prefer not to delay over them, and in asking fora second plate of soup you keep the whole assemblage waiting for one person.

There is a story of the Revolution, however, which shows that this law was not then held in such sacred esteem as it is now. According to the tradition, a number of French officers were invited to dine with an aristocratic family at Newport, and the soup was so rich and so good that the French chevaliers never got beyond that course!

Soup is a terrible snare to the unwary, for it is one of the unpardonable sins of the social decalogue to eat soup noisily. Neither, however, can you save yourself by refusing soup, since this also would be bad form. If it is of a sort which you especially dislike, simply let it alone. In helping to soup, do not fill the plate; half a ladleful suffices, where the ladle is large.

The old rule, never to use a knife with fish, was so very inconvenient, especially in eating shad, that it has been abandoned. Silver fish-knives are now provided at all ceremonious dinners. They are of a peculiar shape and of small size, as also are the forks that accompany them.

It used to be a standing reproach to Americans that they ate so rapidly; but we have improved in this respect as we have grown more luxurious. Still, every one should remember that haste in eating is inelegant as well as very unwholesome.

If any competent person should aid institute a knife, fork and spoon drill, and should offer to give private lessons in the use of these formidable weapons, he might easily make a fortune. The knife is the easiest of the dread trio to manage.

Everybody ate with their knives before the invention of the four-pronged fork, because with the old two-pronged instrument it was manifestly impossible to eat pease, rice and many other articles of food. All English-speaking nations, however, as well as the French, now absolutely forbid the use of the knife except to cut with. On the Continent of Europe, society is not strictly divided everywhere by the " knife line; " and it would not be safe in Germany, for instance, to judge of a man's social position by his method of using his knife.

It is an awkward trick to raise and spread out the elbows when cutting up the food. It also looks very badly to seize the knife too far down or to grasp it too vigorously. It should be held by the handle only, or the forefinger may project slightly on the blade. The fork and spoon should be lightly held, never with the fingers twisted about them.

Every one ought to know how to carve, otherwise he may be placed in the predicament of the Boston lady who had chicken for chimer but was utterly ignorant of how to cut it up. " Mother took hold of one drumstick and I took hold of the other, and we ran till we pulled it apart," - so she told the story!

The modern custom of having the butler do all the carving in the pantry saves the master of the house a great deal of trouble; but there are still many occasions on which it is very important to be able to carve, — at luncheon, at informal suppers, dinners in the country, picnics, etc.

Charles James Fox, who made it a point to do every-thing well and vigorously that he once undertook, was an excellent carver. It is related in Trevelyan's life of him that he used to have a book giving special directions about carving by his side at table, so that he might be sure to carve in the best possible manner.

It is not well to emphasize one's conversation by waving about one's knife or fork, even in an entirely peaceful and friendly manner.

The fork has now become the favorite and fashionable utensil for conveying food to the mouth. First it crowded out the knife, and now in its pride it has invaded the domain of the once powerful spoon. The spoon is now pretty well subdued also, and the fork, insolent and triumphant, has become a sumptuary tyrant. We are glad, however, to note a reaction in favor of the former. It is now thought entirely proper to eat ice cream and similar sweet dishes either with the fork or the spoon or with both, as may be found convenient.

Vegetables are always eaten, with a fork now, save asparagus, which may be held in the fingers by the butt and eaten without other assistance. Where it is much covered with sauce it is certainly the part of discretion to use a fork.

Olives are eaten with the fingers, as being a species of fruit. For salad, good authorities sanction the use of both knife and fork, unless the salad has been cut up beforehand. In the opinion of the writer, it is better not to use a knife. Large lettuce leaves can usually be managed with the aid of a silver fork and a piece of bread. To cut up salad very fine on one's plate, until it is like mince-meat, is in decidedly bad taste. This should be done before the dish comes to table, if at all.

Croquettes, patties, and most of the made dishes which now are so much in vogue should be eaten with a fork; indeed, at a modern fashionable lunch or dinner a large proportion of the courses require no other implement. Of course a knife must be used for plain beef and mutton, chops, cutlets, game, etc. Cheese should be eaten with a fork where it is at all soft, and so should most fruits, as has been said elsewhere. Celery is usually held in the fingers and eaten au naturel.

Another use for the fork is to convey back to the plate fruit-stones and other reliquics which one cannot swallow; these objects should be got rid of, by means of the fork, in the most quiet and unobtrusive manner possible.

The spoon is used for water-ices, Roman punch, soup, soft puddings, tea and coffee, preserves and canned fruits, for all berries, if cream is served with them, for custards, — in fact, for whatever dishes are too liquid to be managed with a fork. A spoon should never be left standing in a teacup, but should be laid on the saucer.

It is better to break bread into pieces before buttering it, instead of buttering the whole slice at once. Indeed, only children should take bites out of a whole slice of bread. Grown people break off pieces of dry bread with their fingers and eat them, for bread, muffins, biscuits, etc., should never be cut apart, but merely broken. This does not apply, of course, to cutting the bread from the loaf.

It is very difficult to describe on' paper the correct way of carrying the fork or spoon to the mouth. Mrs. Sherwood says: The fork should be raised laterally to the mouth with the right hand; the elbow should never be crooked, so as to bring the hand round at a right angle, or the fork directly opposite the mouth." In other words, the fork should be nearly parallel with the mouth, and not at right angles with it.

Seeing, however, is better than hearing in such a case. For dwellers in cities, a simple recipe would be, Go to the Plaza, Sherry's or Delmonico's in New York, or to the Touraine or the Somerset in Boston, and bribe the head waiter to point out to you any " real old families" that may be present, and watch their operations. Alas! even then you may be disappointed. There are men of old family and high degree who eat unpleasantly, - champing the end of the fork, perhaps, as if it were a curb bit.

While it is very undesirable to appear greedy or in too much haste still it is always proper to ask to have things handed to you after waiting a suitable length of time. Ask the servant, however, if one is present; a word or sign will bring an efficient waitress to your side, and you can then quietly tell her what you need.

At a ceremonious dinner one does not need to ask for anything, unless perhaps for a fresh knife or fork (if one's own has fallen upon the floor), or a piece of bread. Some people, however, even when staying at the house of an intimate friend, will starve rather than ask to have any dish passed to them. This is not in accordance with good manners. While it is the part of the host, either personally or through well-trained servants, to see that his guest wants for nothing, it is also the part of the guest to assist his entertainer in the matter, and to mention anything that has been forgotten.

At a dinner one must not neglect one's next-door neighbors. While it is often pleasanter to listen to some witty and agreeable person opposite than to talk platitudes to the person next one, still one must not appear neglectful; above all a gentleman must not. At a small dinner it is very pleasant occasionally to have the conversation become general; at a large dinner, of course it is impossible.

On formal occasions, the guests watch the hostess and take their cue from her. She usually talks first to the person on her right and they all do the same. When later in the dinner, she speaks to the man on her left, they all follow suit in a short time. This is called ;

" The turning of the table. Despite the stiffness which such an arrangement is likely to entail, it has the ad-vantage of ensuring equal attention for all.

The old-fashioned custom of thanking your hostess for a meal is now unhappily obsolete.' It always seemed such a pretty, primitive, quaint fashion, that one would like to revive it, together with the old colonial mansions which are now once more beginning to adorn our land. As Byron said,-

" Ye have the Pyrrhic dance as yet;
Where has the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one? "

So might one now ask why we could not go back to the courtly ways of our ancestors, as well as adopt their houses, their dress — alas! we pay little heed to their manners.

Gentlemen always rise when ladies leave the table. A servant should open the door, or draw aside the portières for them to pass through. If none is present, the gentleman nearest the door performs this office. At large and formal dinners, the men offer their arms and escort the ladies back to the drawing-room, usually returning themselves to the smoking-room or the dining-room, where they enjoy that cigar which is so indispensable to the good-nature of most men, and those other favorites, wines and liqueurs. They do not linger long, however. The old and barbarous British custom of indulging in deep after-dinner potations is now universally condemned.

At a dinner, if you feel uncertain what to do, observe your neighbors, and do as they do. But above all endeavor to be calm outwardly and inwardly. Re-member that no one is thinking about what you are doing half as much as you are yourself, and if you seem quiet and at ease, people will notice your actions much less than if you seem flurried and troubled.

If you upset anything on the cloth, or break any-thing, don't apologize elaborately; and don't be over-whelmed with confusion if you drop your knife or fork. Such accidents have happened before, and will again. If you are too precise and prim, if you are like Dickens's woman, who continually said " Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prisms," you will not appear nearly as well as with a quiet, natural manner.

Be careful, however, not to talk across people, and not to turn your back to those who sit next you; be sure also to take off your gloves as soon as you sit down at the table. If you have neither bag nor pocket, lay them on your lap, and be careful not to drop them.

While it is not customary to refuse soup, it is perfectly proper to refuse one or more courses at a long and elaborate dinner. People who dine out often, seldom attempt to eat everything, but content them-selves with pretending to eat some of the courses.

One should not imitate the candor of a distinguished Englishman who dined in Washington with a former Minister to St. James, and who declined canvas-back duck. His host pressed him to take some, saying that the dish was considered a great delicacy in America. " Thank you, I never eat raw meat," replied the Briton. Nothing daunted, his courteous entertainer sent the ducks back to the kitchen to be more thoroughly cooked. This time the Englishman tried a piece of the meat, and speaking to his wife across the table said, " My dear, try a piece. It is not nearly as nasty as it looks !

To refuse wine, place your hand against the rim of the wine-glass; it is never necessary to take wine if you do not wish to, but in this case it is better not to allow the servant to fill your glass. A wine-glass should be held by the stem and not by the bowl, and the very last drops from it should not be drunk.

There is some question as to the best method of disposing of one's knife and fork when sending one's plate back for a second helping. Some people say that they should be left on the plate (placed carefully together, with the handles pointing the same way, so that they may not fall off), others contend that they should be retained in the hand; modern custom strongly inclines to sanction leaving them on the plate, while formerly it was thought proper to remove them.

This change in sentiment, like so many others of the kind, arises from the different way in which food is now served; in these days we eat fewer things at a time, therefore our plates are not so.. much encumbered, and the carver can put a second supply on them without so much difficulty as under the old regime. The carver, too, is often the butler; whereas formerly he was always the master of the house, whose convenience was of more importance. With the modern fashion of serving from the side-table, the plates are never sent back, all the dishes being offered to the guests by the servant.

Where dinner is served in the old-fashioned way, if there is no master of the house, the gentleman who sits next to the hostess should always offer to relieve her from the duty of carving; although some ladies, who do it well, prefer to carve themselves.

Fish should always be cut up with a silver fish knife and fork, as steel should never come in contact with it.

It is now considered more polite not to pass a plate that has been handed to you, by the waitress, but to keep it yourself. In acting thus you simply accede to the arrangements of your hostess, and cause less disturbance, than by endeavoring to make a new order of things. Where the waitress only puts the dishes on the table, and the family help themselves, it is of course proper to pass on a plate that has been handed to you. As has been said elsewhere, one does not now wait for other people to be helped before beginning to eat; the old rule — of waiting — certainly seems more polite, especially where the host carves.

Not to take the last piece on a dish when it is handed to you is also a rule which has been relegated to the children's table. This old rule must have had its origin in more frugal days than the present; the reason of the new rule is, that if you refuse to take the last piece you imply a doubt of the existence of a further supply in the larder, and such a doubt is a reflection on your host! This is merely one of the many straws which tend to show what an epoch of luxury and wealth ours is.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Early Origin Of Manners

Permanent And Transient Institutions In Society

Uses Of Society

Frankness Of Modern Manners

Visiting Cards And Their Uses

Invitations

Dinners, And How To Give Them

Dinners - Service And Arrangements Of The Table

Etiquette Of The Table

Family Dinner Table - Its Furniture And Equipment

Read More Articles About: Social Customs



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