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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Deplorable Demise of Table Manners

People Today Are Rude, Ignorant Pigs

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He's fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don't care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig

– “Swinging on a Star” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke –

The word “deplorable” got tossed around a good bit in the recent election cycle. Like so many words made up of more than one syllable, a lot of people don't even know what the word means, but bandy it about nonetheless. In a nutshell, it can mean either deserving of strong condemnation or shockingly bad in quality. Political considerations aside, I think both apply to the demise in twenty-first century life of basic table manners. This passing has come about due largely to the fact that very few people actually sit around a table to partake of a meal anymore. TV tables, coffee tables, desks, car seats, laps – these are the places where the majority of eating occurs these days and rather than being presented on plates, food is often served from a bag. Who needs manners? Just unwrap the comestibles and shove 'em down your throat. It's only food.

I was raised differently. My mother insisted on proper manners in all things. I was taught from a young age to open doors for women. I was instructed to offer assistance to elderly people or to the disabled. When walking down the street with my mom, I was told to always walk to the outside, and a half-century later I can't refrain from doing so. I always leap ahead of my wife to open doors and I simply cannot be comfortable walking with her if I am not on her streetside side. (In case you're curious, this custom evolved as a means of protecting a lady from passing traffic, mud splashing, and such.) Basic manners are so infused into my psyche that I am constitutionally incapable of behaving otherwise. I have to try to be ill-mannered, and that's why it bothers me to observe others doing it so naturally.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the dining table. By the quaint, archaic standards of yesteryear, people today are rude, ignorant pigs.

Now, it must be noted that different cultures observe different customs regarding manners at the table. Some things thought to be disgusting among one ethic group are completely acceptable to another. I was raised to observe essential American and Western European customs, hence it is on those criteria that I will, in no particular order, offer comment. I'm not aiming for high etiquette here. Matters of which fork to use when and what particular items of cutlery should be placed where and which plate is appropriate for what course are all valid points of proper conduct, but I'm more concerned here with the basics.

Like, for instance, chewing with your mouth closed. I am horrified by the number of people who no longer think it necessary to adhere to this most rudimentary point of behavior. The last appetite inhibiting thing I, or anyone with an ounce of civilization, want to see is the contents of your mouth being masticated to mush. I have as little desire to watch the beginning of your digestive process as I have to observe the end of it.

If you've stuffed your pie hole so full of food that you can't help but chew it open-mouthed, you have violated another basic precept. My dog frequently dives in face first and ingests all his food in a few bites. If you aspire to be like my dog, by all means, continue to use your fork like a shovel. Humans may consider you vile, but you'll be king among canines.

Regardless of whether or not you overfill your mouth, empty it before attempting to speak. Speech involves utilizing your jaws, tongue, and teeth in certain patterns to emit intelligible sounds. These are the same parts employed by the task of eating and they are not designed to multitask. Watching the half-chewed components of your meal rolling around on your tongue and either dripping or spewing from between your lips as you attempt to form words is absolutely disgusting. And for pity's sake, swallow your food completely before you take a drink. Nothing repulses your dining companions like watching food particles backwash into your beverage.

Having spent some time on a farm, I can assure you that pigs, cows, horses and other assorted livestock make a great deal of unpleasant noise when they consume their feed. They slurp, they snort, they smack, they grunt, they drool, they dribble, they belch, and they pass gas while eating– very much like some people I have observed. All without so much as an “excuse me.” Ignorant, unsophisticated animals can't help such behavior, I suppose. Neither can pigs, cows, horses, and assorted livestock.

Sometimes Mother Nature will sneak up on you with a sneeze or a cough or a hiccup. There's not much you can do to predict or control such occurrences. A well-mannered person says, “excuse me” after a sneeze or a cough or whatever. If the sneezing, coughing, hiccuping, etc. becomes prolonged, one should more literally excuse oneself and leave the table until the spell has passed. Only an ill bred imbecile forces his extended hacking, gagging, snorting, and spewing on his fellow diners.

Let's pause for a moment and consider the term “fellow diners.” To whom should manners and the rules of etiquette apply? Some people seem to think that such things are reserved for “company” or for formal occasions. Others assume that manners are to be observed when dining out but are unimportant at home with friends or family. Wrong on all counts. The Queen of England, your boss, your best friend, your parents or siblings, and total strangers all deserve the same level of respect. I don't know about you, but it doesn't matter to me if it's an unknown person at a restaurant or my brother-in-law at the family table, I don't like having anybody belch in my face. Such behavior is classless and crude whenever or wherever it is exhibited.

Back to the rules. Napkins are provided as a means of keeping your hands and your mouth clean and presentable. They are not there to use for blowing your nose, wiping your face, or polishing your teeth. A napkin should be placed in your lap at the beginning of a meal. In very informal circumstances, it may be tucked into your collar or shirtfront and used as a bib. Either way, it is to be used discreetly to wipe your fingers or dab at the corners of your mouth. Wiping or dabbing other parts of your anatomy with it is gross beyond description. It is proper, indeed, essential, to use a napkin to cover your mouth and/or nose if you sneeze, cough, or inadvertently burp. A napkin dropped on the floor should be replaced with a clean one. A napkin should not be placed in the seat of your chair if you leave the table. Some people say it's okay to do so if you're only taking a temporary leave. But, seriously, think about the body parts that have occupied that seat and then tell me you're okay with wiping your mouth with an article that has shared the same space. When you've finished with a napkin, it should be placed loosely beside your plate. On the left, if you wish to be exceedingly correct. It should never be wadded up and deposited on your plate or anywhere else.

Opposable thumbs set mankind apart from other animals, but this fact does not permit the unrestrained use of fingers when eating. Certainly, some foods – hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, pizza, crisp bacon – are intended to be “finger foods.” But steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, etc. are not. If you're not sure, err on the side of caution. If you have difficulty getting that last morsel onto your fork, it is perfectly acceptable to use a small piece of bread to help accomplish the task. It is never acceptable to push food onto a fork or spoon with your fingers.

The proper handling of bread is another area in which table manners have long since been forsaken. Breads and rolls should be torn or broken at the table, never cut. Some attribute this custom to seventeenth-century French cultural affectations while others assign religious connotations to the practice. (Bread represents the body of Christ, so you don't take after it with a knife.) You should never slather butter on an entire slice of bread or a whole roll while at the table. Break off a bite-size piece of bread and butter it just prior to eating it. Almost nobody does this anymore, but the rule still stands.

On the topic of utensils, I know I said I wasn't going to go into the arcane details of what to use when, but there is one very basic area that needs to be discussed. Gone are the days when men ate at the table using the same tools with which they slaughtered their food. Therefore, it is not necessary to hold your knife and fork like weapons. Assuming right-handedness, hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right. Grip them loosely with your index finger extended along the top edge of each utensil. Don't grip them in your fist as if you are about to stab something. With the tines of the fork curving downward, hold the food in place and employ the knife in a gentle sawing motion to cut off a bite-size piece. You should not have to saw violently enough to shake the entire table. After you have cut your morsel, lay your knife down along the edge of your plate and transfer your fork to your right hand. (This is the American method. In the Continental method, the fork never leaves the left hand.) Never allow your knife, fork, or spoon to touch the table once it has been used. When you set a utensil down, always place it on your plate or in your bowl, in the case of soup.

Speaking of soup, rule number one is no slurping! (Refer back to the paragraph regarding animal noises.) You should fill the bowl of your soup spoon a little more than half-full and, moving the spoon away from yourself rather than towards, raise the spoon to your lips and sip the soup from the side of the spoon. The “airplane” game may have been cute when you were two years old and your mother was trying to get you to open your mouth, but you should never put the whole spoon in your mouth from the front, or from any other direction, for that matter. It's permissible to tip your bowl away slightly to get the last drops of soup, but it is never proper to pick it up and drink from it. And when you return the spoon to the bowl, try to do so as quietly as possible. Loud clanking of cutlery is almost as annoying as animal noises.

Don't slouch at the table. Maintaining good posture is not only good etiquette but good for the digestion, as well. Keep your elbows off the table. Forearms are okay, elbows are not. And don't lean over your plate as you eat. Sit upright and gracefully use your fork or spoon to transport food to your mouth. Leaning in and shoveling up makes you look like a caveman.

One of my greatest pet peeves revolves around coming to the table when dinner is announced. I have witnessed gatherings where the host calls everybody to the table to dine and a few ignorant, lumpen clods, feeling that whatever conversation or pursuit they are involved in is of paramount importance, either dismiss the host with “Yeah, I'll be right there,” or ignore the summons completely. Not only is this base, rude, and insulting in and of itself, it also puts other diners in a quandary.

Acceptable behavior dictates that a meal should not commence before all are seated and the host has given the signal to begin. When you have ignoramuses who just have to watch that last play or that last scene or who feel compelled to speak that last sentence or puff that last puff or whatever else they consider more important than the meal at hand, everyone is discomfited because everyone has to wait on the convenience of a few ill-mannered trolls.

When someone has expended a great deal of effort in order to prepare and present food to you, it is minimally expected that you will have the good grace to come promptly to the table. And the practice of sending one's compliments to the chef is not merely an affectation reserved for people wishing to make good impressions at fancy restaurants. Thanking the person who prepared your meal and complimenting its quality is a mannerly thing to do. Keeping one's mouth shut about any flaws or deficiencies is also the well-mannered prerogative. “Gee, the turkey's a little dry” might be true, but pointing it out at the table is rude.

And I don't know about you, but I have never been present at a meal where starter's pistols, stopwatches, and checkered flags were involved. Eating is not a competitive event. Once a meal has begun, there is no need to race through it with knife and fork flying, because you won't be awarded a trophy for finishing first.

Even if you are Elastic Man and posses the ability to stretch your arm clear across the table, don't. The so called “boardinghouse reach” is inappropriate even in a boardinghouse. When a dish is passed to you, take a portion, and pass the dish to your right. If you would like to partake of a certain item or dish, ask that it be passed to you. When you have served yourself, either place the dish on the table in front of you or, if space is an issue, return it to whomever passed it to you so that it can be returned to its original place.

There are two schools of thought regarding the passing of salt and pepper. The older school advocates passing both the salt and the pepper, regardless of a request for only one of the items. A newer take promotes passing the salt and politely inquiring if the diner would also like the pepper. Personally, I'm old school.

“Please” and “thank you” are always appropriate.

Excuse yourself if you have to leave the table for some reason. And you don't have to inform your fellow diners as to the reason. We really don't care that you're going to the bathroom. A simple, “excuse me” will suffice. Don't make a production of it. Get up quietly, quietly push your chair back to the table, and quietly go on about your business.

If you are one who still clings to the adolescent belief that smoking makes you look “cool,” go look cool by yourself. Smoking has got to be the filthiest, nastiest, most offensive habit on the planet and it has absolutely no place at the dining table, whether before, during, or after a meal.

Dressing for dinner has sadly become a thing of the past. Nevertheless, I refuse to sit at a table in my underwear. While I may not always wear a coat and tie, I will at least wear a shirt. Especially for holidays and other special gatherings. Nothing says “festive” like your Uncle Joe coming to the table in his sweat shorts and a tank top. After all, nothing whets the appetite like chest and underarm hair. And, guys, regardless of how “stylin'” you might be, take your hat off at the table. Trust me, the sky will not fall if you remove your headgear for a few minutes.

Manners are the standards of conduct which demonstrate that a person is proper, polite, and refined. I have outlined just a very, very few basic rules that will help you look like a civilized human being at the table rather than a Neanderthal. If you want to be more excruciatingly correct, Emily Post and Miss Manners both have books that will enable you to do so.

But if you don't care a feather or a fig,
You may grow up to be a pig.

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