Think of Others
When at table you should at all times be alert to the needs and the feelings of others. Selfishness is never more objectionable than at table. The dour feeder who sees nothing outside the small semi-circle of table immediately in front of him as he sets to work with all the efficiency of a mechanical grab does not deserve to share a meal with his more civilized friends, if he has any. It is the duty of each person at table to anticipate as far as possible the wants of those around him and to pass what is needed. When passing a dish or a piece of cutlery, care should be taken to face the handle towards the person receiving the article. In satisfying your own needs see that you do not stretch across those sitting beside you. Ask politely for the article to be passed to you. Of course, a word of apology is necessary whenever you cause any inconvenience to others at table, no matter what the circumstances.
It is bad manners to speak across the person seated next to you in order to address someone farther down the table. You will of necessity have to confine your conversation to those in your immediate vicinity. Every effort should be made to avoid coughing, sneezing or using the handkerchief at table; if this proves impossible you should take care to turn away from the table and deal with the situation as unobtrusively as you can. To cough or sneeze across the table is an unpardonable offence.
It is a discourtesy to other guests to read a letter or a book at table. If for any reason it is necessary to do so you should beg leave from the other guests, at least by a simple “Excuse me”. A particularly childish form of bad manners at table is to pick over food such as fruit, cakes or sweets in order to get the choicest piece for oneself. You should normally take the piece that is nearest to you. This does not mean that it is wrong to choose according to your taste from a bowl of fruit, for example, as long as this is done without any burrowing to the bottom of the dish.
Some persons develop the annoying habit of toying with the cutlery or other articles on the table. The knife-spinners, serviette-ring-twirlers and sugar-spoon-drummers are not welcome in the company of those who like to take their meals in an atmosphere of relaxed comfort.
Getting Down to Business
In the actual process of eating one’s food, every semblance of vulgarity must be carefully avoided. Do not overload the fork or spoon. It is not a pretty sight to watch the bulging jaws of one whose appetite is all too obvious. This form of bad manners is more disgusting still, if the offender eats with his mouth open; such a habit is an affront to eye and ear. The actual business of chewing and swallowing should be as silent as possible, which in fact means that it should be almost inaudible.
It is vulgar to speak with your mouth full. Neither should you address a person who has just taken a mouthful of food. If you are spoken to while in the act of eating, allow yourself time to dispose of the mouthful before attempting to reply.
Eat your meals at a moderate pace, aiming to finish at about the same time as the rest of the table. Above all, avoid the extremes of the earnest crank who keeps a statistical record of his chewing, and the single-minded cormorant intent only on gobbling down his food in the shortest possible time.
Try to keep your place at table clean and tidy. Take care that you do not scatter crumbs and other particles of food over the cloth. Some people are so careless in this matter that you would think a colony of squirrels had been at the table.
If the food put before you is too hot to take immediately, be patient and allow it to cool in the natural way. This will never take more than a few moments. It is vulgar in the extreme to try to speed up the process by blowing on your food. If your tea or coffee is too hot, a little gentle stirring with the spoon will be sufficient to cool it. To drink tea or coffee from the saucer puts you on the level of the household cat. To dunk biscuits or bread in your tea or coffee is never permissible.
Be satisfied to take the food in the way it is served on your plate; do not mash it up. This treatment may be necessary for children or invalids but not for those who possess normal digestive powers. When taking butter, jam or similar spreads, place on the side of the plate sufficient for the slice of bread you are going to eat. Do not spread the butter or jam over the whole slice, but cut your bread one mouthful at a time, spreading each piece as you need it. Custom sanctions the spreading of butter over a whole slice of toast, which may then be cut into thin strips or fingers convenient for eating. At dinner a small roll or piece of bread may be provided near each person’s place. This is not cut, but broken into small pieces with the fingers as needed.
No matter how much you have enjoyed a particular dish, you should not display your satisfaction to the extent of wiping the plate bone-dry. By doing this you might cause your hostess to fear she had not succeeded in coping with your appetite. Do not push the plate away from you when you have finished a course and do not hand it to the waiter. It is his duty to remove the plates. Obviously, it is not necessary to observe all these formalities when dining at the family table.
When Things Go Wrong
Even with the greatest of care, accidents will sometimes happen at table. Such occasions call for tact and composure on the part of both hostess and guests. If something has been spilt, it may be necessary to use your serviette to mop it up immediately, especially when there is danger of soiling clothing or furniture. Often a resourceful hostess will be able to set everything right with the minimum of embarrassment to all concerned. The important thing is for those at the table not to be confused or unduly concerned.
If you should find something offensive on your plate or in your food, it would be most improper to draw the attention of others at the table to it. Just put the offending portion aside and say nothing. There are times when it is not easy to conceal one’s reactions to an unpleasant discovery. To find a grub, or worse, half a grub in the piece of lettuce you are eating can be an unnerving experience. If you find that you have taken into your mouth something that you cannot or ought not swallow, you must not eject it from your mouth to the plate. Wait for an opportunity to remove it quickly from the mouth with the aid of the serviette, drawing as little attention to the operation as possible. Sometimes the spoon or the back of the fork may be used for the purpose, but on no account thrust your fingers into your mouth.
When you are a guest at another’s table, you must be careful not to give offence by refusing a course. Even if you feel that you cannot possibly eat what is put before you, it is generally possible to take at least a portion of it and make some pretence at eating the rest.
Picking the teeth at table is grossly offensive to all but those who are hardened offenders themselves. In most instances there is no need at all to attend to this matter at the table. If, however, the discomfort is so great that you cannot proceed with your meal, it would be better to leave the table quietly and without comment go and deal with the trouble. At the earliest opportunity you should take the necessary steps to prevent a recurrence.
The custom of dining away from home is becoming more and more common. The dinner party, of varying degrees of formality, is now such an important part of social life for both young and old that we shall consider it in some detail in the next section. First, we shall touch on a few general points applying to dining out.
When dining in a restaurant or hotel, a gentleman should offer the menu-card first to the lady he may be accompanying. He then gives both her selection and his own to the waiter. Some people take an altogether unreasonable time to make up their minds when consulting a menu. It is quite in order to ask the waiter for information about dishes that are unfamiliar to you. Menus are frequently expressed in French. If you are ignorant of that language and unfamiliar with the higher mysteries of cooking it is better to conceal the fact than to draw attention to yourself like the innocent character who, having ordered hopefully “Feuille indienne a 1’eau bouillante”, blurted out, “It’s only tea!” when the order was placed before him.
Menus are presented in two forms a la carte, which provides a large variety of dishes from which to choose, and table d’hote, which is a fixed menu offering little or no choice. The advantage of the latter is that you can get a full meal at a lower cost by forgoing the variety of choice. When a gentleman accompanies a lady to a restaurant or hotel dining-room, he is expected to pay the full cost of the meal. Before leaving the table he may unobtrusively offer a tip to the waiter. This normally need be no more than a few shillings which can sometimes conveniently be left on the table for the waiter to collect.