For some reason, maybe because we sit together and focus more closely on each other, dining seems to get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to etiquette discussions. In today’s column, rather than focusing on one aspect of dining, I’m going to touch briefly on several considerations.
We can all be thankful that the days are long gone when a lady was expected to barely touch her meal or to curl her fingers just so when handling a cup. Even so, while a lady today is free to eat a normal amount and to show enjoyment, that does not give carte blanche to scoop it in like an oil field hand who’s just worked a 10-hour shift. My father used to tell me that a refined person never acted as if the meal was the first they’d had all week. Calm and cool is always a good approach.
Another sign of a refined person, and by definition a lady is refined, is that however much she may be enjoying her meal, she doesn’t allow it to be her sole focus unless she’s dining alone. When dining with others, social convention requires that your fellow diners be, or at least appear to be, the main focus of attention and the meal the secondary one. Enjoyable conversation is the best seasoning a meal can have, and knowing how to carry your share of the discussion will turn you into a sought-after friend for an outing. No one expects you to hold forth like a visiting professor emeritus, but participating in the conversation is part of being a considerate person.
If someone you’re with has done some or all of the cooking, remember to compliment them. Even if you don’t much care for the results, they gave you a gift in preparing something for you, and a thank you is in order. There’s always a courteous way to say thanks even for the worst thing you’ve ever tasted. “I’ve always loved salmon” will be heard as a compliment even though you had to choke down your hostess’ version of it.
Do try to remember to not lean all over the table. It’s OK these days to rest your forearms lightly on the edge of the table while you’re talking or waiting but not while you’re eating. And please don’t turn the table’s edge into a fulcrum, working your forearms like a see-saw as your mouth and the food meet somewhere in between. Always, always bring the food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food. With few exceptions your posture should remain upright while eating. If you close your eyes and try to visualize Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy sitting at a table, the image that comes to mind is definitely not of a head facing down into the plate.
Greasy fingers should be wiped on a napkin, not licked. (I won’t press the point too much and wonder exactly how they got greasy in the first place!) Remember to keep your napkin in your lap, not on the table or tucked into your front, and when you’re finished eating, please do not crumple the napkin and throw it onto the dirty plate. Even though it may just be paper, try to fold it over and leave it beside the plate. And remember to move your silverware to the center of the plate when finished, both as a signal that you’re done and so that it won’t fall off when the plate is removed.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, unfortunately many people today do not follow even the simple rules above, but by holding yourself to a higher standard than simply the lowest common denominator, you will have both self respect and the respect of those around you, who will remember you as a charming lady with whom they had the pleasure of dining.