Don’t Lick Your Fingers by Liz Smith from “Dishing”
I was raised on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you want to be done to. But growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, in a big, raucous family that featured numerous eccentric and long-visiting relatives, all bets were off at the table. My mother, Elizabeth, would set down food in big bowls so people could help themselves. Table manners were the least of her worries, since feeding everyone was such an ordeal. It was literally every man, woman and child for himself. Competing with my brothers, James and Bobby. I learned how to fight for my chicken wing and everything else.
Once I left the University of Texas for the so-called higher reaches of New York society – working for columnist Cholly Knickerboker – I saw how socially disadvantaged I was. I endeavored to improve myself by watching how others lived, ate and behaved. But the school of hard knocks doesn’t always sand those raw edges, especially when your friends urge you not to abandon your “amusing” roughneck self. Finally two of my dearest friends couldn’t take it any more.
For someone in my position, they said, I had the worst table manners they’d ever seen. My feelings were hurt, but I knew they were right. One of them sent me a clipping that mentioned classes in etiquette at The Plaza Hotel. The accompanying note read, “You should sign up for this.” So I did. It’s never too late to try to improve.
The Plaza Hotel holds a storied place in Manhattan’s high-society universe. It’s where Cary Grant feuded with room service because they always charged him for two English muffins and sent him just three halves for breakfast. (He demanded and received the fourth half.) It’s where the great choreographer and performer Kay Thompson created a rambunctious little girl named Eloise. F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed, and drank, there. So did Ernest Hemingway.
Today, decades later, the landmark hotel offers a “Young Plaza Ambassadors” program for children from ages 6 to 18, offering cooking classes, dancing instruction, and “A Complete Etiquette Workshop.” I signed up for a class called “Basic Dining Skills,” taught by Ms. Lyudmila Bloch. Cost: $45. (The Plaza decided to overlook the fact that I was over 18.)
The parents who attended my Saturday class sat in little gold chairs in an anteroom. We “children” sat 30 strong at a U-shaped table before a big cardboard printout of a perfect table setting. Standing inside the U, Ms. Bloch asked questions, took answers, and showed us where we were going wrong. I didn’t have a parent, so I made a longtime friend Suzanne Goodson go with me. (She’s from Tennessee, so I figured she had as much to learn as I did.)
A nice red-headed lady with an attractive European accent, Ms. Bloch told us about the rules of civility. She said that when men were busy settling America, it was the women who had to enforce etiquette. We needed etiquette, she said, to be “respectful and kind,” to be “well mannered.” Then she asked, “What is the worst thing we can do to others?”
A pert little eight-year-old girl piped up, “We can hurt someone’s feelings!”
Ms. Bloch nodded, and soon waiters began serving us lunch.
As the rolls and butter arrived, Ms. Bloch began a steady stream of instructions. “Keep your bread and butter on the bread plate, not your dinner plate. Elbows off the table.”
She instructed as we ate, “Sit up straight. Never, ever use your napkins for anything but wiping your mouth carefully. Go from the outside in; that is, use the outside cutlery on the righthand side first and then discard it. Never lick your fingers. But it’s okay in fast-food restaurants to eat with your fingers.” I thought, It better be!
“Don’t load your fork,” Ms. Bloch continued. “Salads on the left, glasses on the right. Chew and swallow be- fore answering people. Do not correct your parents or siblings at the table.”
I confess I wondered, Why not?
Ms. Bloch also said we must never “explain” why we’re leaving the table if we do. “Simply get up and say, ‘Excuse me,’ and fold your napkin across the back of the chair so the waiter will know you’ll return.”
This was a new one on me. But what did I know? I started whispering to Suzanne about it, but she dug me in the ribs to be quiet.
WHEN THE vegetable soup was served, I tried to impress Suzanne with how much I knew by citing poetry: “Like little ships gone out to sea, I push my spoon away from me.” I was thrilled that I knew this before it was actually announced. But Suzanne was riveted by Ms. Bloch’s advice never to turn the spoon over when the soup is gone and not to leave it in the empty cup either. Merely leave it on the side of the cup, on the service plate.
I said, “Well, I learned something right there.”
Suzanne hissed, “Shut up!” I didn’t think “Shut up” was good manners, but I’ve known Suzanne a long time.
Just as Ms. Bloch was telling us not to blow on the soup but to wait until it cools, I sneezed. This was embar- rassing, since about 30 kids chorused “God bless you.” I begged their par- don, which was more than I had done during some other meals in my life.
Next we were served a terrific piece of grilled chicken with some yummy French fries. This caused a frisson of pleasure among the children and between Suzanne and me too. You’d think we had never seen a French fry. Suddenly a little Ralph Lauren-attired boy said he’d dropped his napkin.
Ms. Bloch was delighted. “Leave it right there. lust ask for another.” She added that it’s okay between courses to have one of our hands in our laps.
Next Ms. Bloch discussed cutting up food and transferring the fork to take it to the mouth. I asked if she thought it was important “to tell the children how differently Europeans handle a knife and fork. I popped off that surely she meant to say that Europeans consider it okay to leave your hands balanced on the table at the wrist, which American etiquette says is a no-no. Ms. Bloch paused slightly.
Then she said yes, it was important to show the two ways of handling cutlery. “Both are acceptable,” she said.
Beside me, Suzanne was gritting her teeth. “You’re going to get us kicked out of here!”
Time flew and we arrived at dessert, with the waiters bringing us fresh utensils. “We will explain eating ice cream with a fork and spoon,” said Ms. Bloch while the children mur- mured in unrest. What appeared in front of us was a scoop of ice cream with some kind of cake underneath it.
The intricacies of eating this dish with two hands were explained. Then we took a break.
“Return for the tea lesson,” Ms. Bloch advised us. By now Suzanne and I were full to bursting and full of the virtues of etiquette. Instead of tea with the ten-year-olds, we hotfooted it to Bergdorf Goodman. “Did you notice, she never said anything about eating with your mouth closed?” I asked Suzanne.
“Well, then, I guess the whole lesson was lost on you,” Suzanne said.
Suzanne never hurts my feelings, be- cause she is like family and I couldn’t always get along with them either. As one of the rather distracted mothers remarked as we were leaving, “Honestly, I’m usually running between the kitchen and the dining room. All I’m really hoping for is for them to eat. To please eat something. I usually don’t have time for all the niceties.”
Which reminded me of my mother, and her nightly struggle to get supper on the table. She never paid much at- tention to who did the boardinghouse reach, as long as none of us actually got hurt. Manners? Sure, they’re great. But you can take a class in manners. What I learned at Mother’s dinner table about competition, and diplomacy and, yes, not hurting people’s feelings you can’t buy anywhere.