Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Table settings and manners

Growing up in Texas to a family of "impoverished gentility", my grandmother saw to it that all of us grandkids attended Cotillion classes. For those of y'all not conversant with Southern traditions, Cotillion is a series of classes that teach social dancing (ballroom, not twerking), deportment, manners and other social graces. From age 10 to 15, for an hour every Saturday, Miss Claudette would attempt to teach us how to sit and walk gracefully, how to set a formal table and how to comport oneself in various social situations most of us will never find ourselves facing. I have never been invited to or hosted High Tea. But for the most part, the classes were interesting and I have used many of the skills. To this day, when I sit down, my feet automatically cross at the ankles, knees together and to the side, feet tucked under my chair out of the way. I have attended several formal dinners where I was faced with a veritable arsenal of cutlery and silverware. Not once did I panic. If your family is wealthy, Cotillion culminates in a season of debutante balls where daughters are presented to society. Trust me, I ain't no Deb.

Below is a European setting, notice the salad utensils are on the inside closest to the plate. For some reason, they serve salad at the end rather than the beginning. An American setting would have the salad on the outside, before the soup and fish courses. A general rule of thumb is to work from the outside in, that way it doesn't matter in which order they serve the courses.

Several years ago, I got to go on a cruise, the highlight for me (aside from snorkling, swimming and generally running around practically nekkid) was getting dressed for dinner in the evenings. Formal  six course dinners with all the tablewear. I was in Heaven, but I felt for my tablemates who were struck with Deer in the Headlights panic the first night. I didn't want to be the know-it-all at the table, didn't want to say anything, so I just went about eating. Halfway through the salad, I noticed everyone was watching for what came next. By the third night, we were all relaxed and chatting and completely unphased when they switched up the settings from American to European. I was so proud of us, we totally rocked.

Another tidbit of info is what to do with your utensils to signal the waitstaff if you're pausing or finished and ready to have your dishes cleared. Saves the awkward "Are you finished?" questions that interrupt the flow of table conversation. Trust me, if it's a formal meal, the waitstaff have been trained to read the signals.

"Ready for a second plate" and "Finished" are two distinctly different signals. The first implies a second serving of the current course and the second that you're finished with the course. European etiquette calls for the fork or spoon to be turned backside up, why I'm not sure, but it does. The same etiquette calls for food to be placed in the mouth with the fork backside up. Again, not sure why.

So there you have it, formal table settings and etiquette. Remember to place a small pad of butter on your bread plate and break off small pieces of the bread, buttering before eating. I got in trouble so many times over that one. 

Bon apetite!


If you wish to study napkin etiquette, click HERE.


Anonymous said...

Knowing how to behave/respond at a dining table is an essential skill in a social setting. My parents were middle class working folks (plumber and secretary) but we kids were drilled at table manners.

During my time in the Army as an NCO my wife and I attended many formal dinners.
Many of the educated 'officer class' didn't know their spoon from their spork. My Colonel noticed and as a result the Mrs. and I received many invitations we otherwise would not have received.

And don't forget there are also Napkin Signals.
Lazarus Long

Lazarus Long

Cederq said...

Angel, I was an MP in the Army and was chosen to attend "Charm school" for eventual duty at Formal balls and Diplomatic functions, we all learned this and much more... our instructor was named "Miss Anita" and she was from Atlanta... she was tougher then any drill sergeant we ever had... she could disembowel you with a look, a scathing rebuke was almost grounds for a bad conduct discharge... those were the days, but over the years it has served me well and has made me comfortable in lots of social situations were, like you I was ready for the formal meal and my seat mates stumbled blindly.

Bobo the Hobo said...

We lived in Europe the first ten years of our marriage and I learned to eat European-style - salad course last as it is considered a "digestivo". To this day I find it awkward eating salad as the first course.

The method of eating with the fork upside down in the left hand allows the diner to control the food and eat without throwing one's head back in order to accommodate the bolus. It's neater and more efficient. My dear, late grandmother taught me to eat with my fork in my left hand as it is easier when cutting meat and less clumsy than switching utensils. Also, you are not a toddler; cut one bite at a time before cutting more.

And one final point: please do not order a "cappuccino" after 1100 hours. One orders cappuccino for breakfast only and espresso the rest of the day and into evening.

Alien said...

Boy, does that go way back. Grew up in (location redacted) and was sentenced to Mrs. Shippen's School of Ballroom Dance for several years, plus the required etiquette courses involving proper management of tableware, meeting one's parents' guests, etc. The old man was an attorney and put me in training as his chauffeur from the day I started driving legally. I "intensely disliked" ("hate" was not an acceptable word in our family vocabulary) that period, but it has stood me in very good stead since.

Anonymous said...

Are Spaghetti-O's eaten with a spoon, fork or spork?

Mr. Miracle said...

Yup. Had my Mom start it, and the Army finished preparing me for gentile society. It has worked for me over the years, and I was always happy to show up my betters as they expected this cholo looking desert rat to flub amazingly. I would have received even more instruction from your lesson, Angel, but you lost me after "practically nekkid".

Anonymous said...

nicely done - one never knows when one will be invited to tea with the Queen, so best be prepared! (Course my wife uses that same logic as the excuse to bring enough luggage on every trip, even an overnight, to make a camel groan)

Actually, we drilled our two boys on manners and comportment when they were eight in preparation for their birthday trip to England. Told them they might choose to act any way they wanted after they left our house, but they would damn sure have this tool in their tool box in case they ever needed it. Falls into the category of acting like you belong (when you don't) to keep you from getting kicked out. Blew me away when a couple of years later, they both jumped to their feet when a woman friend of ours came up tot he table in a restaurant!

Just like teaching them how to shoot from a young age - yet another tool in the tool box.

Anonymous said...

that is some damn good info....i was moderately schooled enough to get by in most social settings i find myself in, but this is all good info and really, has a charming logic of sorts to it...thank you!

vaquero viejo

Anonymous said...

Don't forget to hold your fork, spoon, and knife correctly.

Wrapping your fist around any one is crude and offensive.


Angel eyes said...

Invaluable information. I'll bring this up on our next camping/fishing/drinking trip...if I want to get thrown in the lake!

Cederq said...

Iffin' ya get thrown in to the lake "practically nekkid" I'll be there!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Angel, I'll save the pics for later study/memorization.

By the way, in French masculine words normally end with a consonant and feminine words with a vowel, so it should be 'bon appetit'.

Aren't you glad English is neuter without all the le, la, les and blanc, blanche nonsense?


Daryl said...

Well fuck, ain't you alls a genteel mess. I grew up an uncouth hillbilly in southeastern Ohio. Mom did her best with us kids, and some of it stuck.
One of my grandpas would sometimes stop by at supper, or join us for one on the holiday meals. It was always the same, "I don't need a plate, I'm just gonna sit at the table with you. He would sit, and grab the first fork he saw that wasn't being used, even if it was a serving fork. He would sit there at the table, take a look around and all a sudden that fork would jab out and spear a piece of food, tater here, into his mouth, up over across the table for a fork full of stuffing, into his mouth, look around, and there he goes again for another fork full. When he took a piece of chicken or ham with a bone, he would literally suck the meat off and that bone would pretty much be spit onto the nearest plate. So, he sat there and ate a whole damn meal right out of the serving bowls, with his one fork.

hiswiserangel said...

My genteel grandmother, all 5'2" of her, would have rapped his knuckles and had him by the ear until he begged or behaved. That would have NEVER flown at her table.

My first lesson at 3 on table setting:
The knife and the spoon were right, so the fork left.

Brad Richards said...

I've been living in Europe for 20-odd years now, and I don't quite recognize those rules. I think they are specifically English.

At least in German-speaking Europe, there are basically three silverware signals that are used:

- Taking a break, don't steal my plate: as shown.

- Finished: knife and fork together, diagonally across the plate, handles at the lower right.

- Would like seconds: knife and fork crossed in the center of the empty plate.

Likely the signals are different in different places, but those are the ones I've learned, and my impression is that that apply pretty generally to continental Western Europe.

It's not even fine dining; it just helps the wait staff to tell if you're done without pestering you all the time. When I come back to the US for a visit, it drives me nuts: "can I get you anything", "is everything ok", "do you need anything else" - constantly, the whole damned meal. Leave us alone and let us eat.

There are other funny differences as well: in the US, I was taught to keep my hand off the table if I'm not using it. In Europe, if your hand is out of sight, people wonder just what you're doing down there; if you have no use for a hand, you rest your wrist on the table.

TinCan Assassin said...

I'll just take myself out by the servant's door. Sorry to have bothered ya'll.