By Jody Worsham
All rights reserved for an Emily Post Rewrite
My nine-year-old's Girl Scout troop had been trying for a month to arrange etiquette lessons from a local Miss Manners but scheduling never worked out. As a recovering former Teacher-I-Can-Fix-Anything, I momentarily fell off the teaching wagon and offered to teach a concentrated lesson in table manners at my house. After all, I did have a dining room, dining chairs, and dishes. The fact that I can't cook is irrelevant. I even had my wedding silverware, antique silverware by now, and I had learned how to fold napkins on one of our cruises. What could be easier?
I got the extra leaf to the dining table out from under the bed. After I wedged the leaf into the table, it was only unlevel by a quarter inch in the center. I'd just put a piece of cardboard under that placemat to even things out. I rounded up all the dining chairs from the various rooms. The seat covers all matched except for one which I never got around to recovering. I bought three more placemats after I discovered the dryer had eaten just one. I have three almost complete sets of china thanks to oatmeal, Texaco gas stations, laundry detergent and green stamps. These are also considered antiques by now. After reviewing "Betty Crocker Entertainment Made Easy" I saw that it was ok to mix and match dishes. She, of course, meant it's ok to mix eight matching bread plates with eight different matching dinner plates but I didn't read that part until later…after everyone had gone. So between the three sets of china, I had service for eight.
The silverware was a different story. Yes, I had service for eight but only one butter knife, an integral part to my lesson on "tear off one piece of bread, butter, and eat, then repeat" segment of Miss Manners At the Banquet Table. I substituted plastic knifes. This was just practice, you know.
Since my teaching method has always been to "teach backwards", I piled up all the dishes, chargers, silverware, stemware, napkins, and place cards in the middle of the table. I then instructed them to "set the table." Chargers were placed on top of dinner plates, cups, saucers stacked to the left and the silverware was placed inside the stemware. Napkins lay limply to the side. Clearly time for Miss Manners intervention. I had prepared a poster with the correct place setting glued on…which fell off the minute I held it up for the girls to see. The table was finally set, amidst muffled giggles.
One of the moms served the bread using bread tongs which is my case were some pickle tongs I had found in the back of a drawer. I had wanted to cut the butter into little serving squares and stamp them with an initial like you see at fancy hotels, so I placed the butter in the freezer. Thirty minutes later I remembered the butter and began hacking the butter stick into squares using a butcher knife. Forget the fancy initial unless you are thinking Chinese/caveman hieroglyphics.
Having conquered the bread and butter, we moved on to serving coffee. I forgot I didn't have a silver coffee carafe, probably because I never had one, so I just used my Mr. Coffee pot. The girls practiced turning their coffee cups upside down to indicate they did not want coffee; except for one little girl. "May I have some coffee, please?" she asked. "No, coffee is not good for you; besides the pot is empty. We are pretending practicing remember?" I countered.
On to the main course. The object was to practice using a knife and fork correctly, both the American way and the European way. I served filet-of-wiener; that's a wiener cut down the middle with a bit of cheese in the middle and heated in the oven, not much chance of me messing that up. It was a big success, the filet-of-wiener, not the cutting and forking. That needed more practice.
After correctly placing the knife and fork on the plate in the three o'clock position, the mom-servers removed the plates from the right and served my very elegant dessert from the left; that being the ice cream-on-sponge-cake-with-whipped-cream-and-a-strawberry-on top. The "I'm allergic to strawberries" comment initiated the lesson on how to move food around on your plate and not eat it while holding meaningful conversation and no you cannot ask for substitutions at a banquet.
This led us into table talk. Topics of conversation could not involve body parts, bodily functions, bodily sounds, gossip, or comments on my cooking or décor.
It was a very quiet meal…mannerly but quiet.
Miss Manners would be so proud.