Manners maketh the man or woman and in the era of finger-lickin’ good, Kya deLongchamps gives a practical guide to essential etiquette for smart dinners over Christmas and New Year.
At one time we had a personal armoury — a dozen rapier-like utensils transporting everything from soft fruit to shellfish to the mouth — guided by a silver-plated code of practise.
Today, the only thing stopping us returning to our Mesolithic manners is searing heat and the slippery nature of food. Bearing in mind that only socially-insecure, badly brought-up bores will ever make remarks or judging looks about table behaviour, here are a few tips.
The primary directive for any host is to make you comfortable. Relax. Short of falling face down into the food, standards vary widely and no one really minds. Anyone who puts more than three utensils a side around a plate is just showing off.
Having arrived and handed over any small token from wine to petrol station flowers (don’t go empty handed), you might find yourself at a courtly table arrangement or a free for all. Traditionally, being seated at the right hand of the host or hostess indicates rank.
If you ask me, the only solid rule worth keeping, is splitting up couples who would otherwise cling to each other. Once you know where you are placed, sit down, and take up the napkin and cover your lap. A larger napkin can be left folded over with the fold towards your tummy.
When the entire meal is over, leave your napkin as is, by the left hand side of the plate on the table itself. Leave phones and car keys in your bag or pocket. If your mobile rings and you must take the call (ignoring it is a nice touch), excuse yourself and leave the gathering, returning promptly.
Starting at the outliers around that main plate. If you haven’t set the table yourself, expect the utensils and glasses to work inward with the courses, your knives and spoons being on the right. The spoon and fork lying across the top of your place are for desert, so fetch them down when the rest of the meal is over.
Sorbet spoons (if a ‘refresher’ course does appear) will come with the sorbet, and don’t get in a twist about glasses. Simply hold a red wine glass closer to the bowl, as it doesn’t matter if it’s warmed by your hand.
All chilled wine and drinks in a fluted glass, can be held by the top of the stem with fingertips and thumb. A really top drawer, rather retro meal, might be served with a sherry accompanying the soup course.
Wait for everyone to be served and for the host to start eating, and don’t shake salt or pepper onto the food before tasting it. The main knife and fork demand different handling in different countries, but in Ireland and the UK it’s proper to load food to the back of the fork, keeping the tines down.
Hold both throughout the main course, the tines and blades in line with your wrist, and avoid the one handed fork shovel (celebrated by Emily Post in the US, if you are challenged by some boozed-up, loud-mouth).
Leave starter cutlery you’ve finished with, to the side, on your side plate. Fish knives are rare on a standard table setting, but just treat the tip for picking out the odd bone and use the curved side to slide flat between the flesh and skin. Don’t be overwhelmed. The fish knife size just matches the knife — no mystery.
Don’t touch your roll or a hearty slice of bread with a knife. Break it with your fingers into smaller pieces on the side plate, and use the knife to butter, jam or to apply soft cheese. To fetch butter, use your own bread knife which will be on the side plate, or at the extreme edge of your right-hand utensils.
Scoop some butter onto your side-plate and use that private portion. If you want to ‘sop’ with the bread, spear a small piece with your fork and wipe it through the sauce or gravy, don’t chuck bread into a plate or dish to drown.
Generally, chicken in drums and thighs, and tiny birds eaten whole, can be eaten with the fingers, but once sliced, it’s cutlery all the way.
Spoon soup away from you and tilt the soup bowl at a shallow angle away from you to get the last sup. If it’s too hot, wait or add a drop of milk to a non-consommé soup. Never pucker up and blow. Deadly m’dears.
Obviously, we’re not recreating Saturday night at the workhouse, so resist scraping, licking, aerating the food with open-mouthed hoots, or other outward displays of barbarity, no matter how delicious the meal.
When the main course is over, place the primary knife and fork together (knife on top if you’re being super fussy) at about four o’clock on the main plate. This allows the server to swoop in from your right and take it away without fidgeting things around, with their elbows up your nose.
You should pass condiments, baskets or rolls, etc, also to the right if possible. Deserts can be tricky, but let’s get past the fork/spoon confusion. Aim to eat off the spoon. The fork is there to push the desert onto the spoon bowl. The only thing to remember is that the spoon takes the place of the knife in the right hand.
Believe it or not, despite all the parental roars on the matter, after the meal has been cleared it is acceptable to mount the table with the elbows, or the ankles, if you’re not already under the table.
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