There are so many ways in which we can offend against propriety when taking meals that it is not surprising to find that many persons, especially children, immediately think of the table whenever the subject of good manners is mentioned. Mere eating is an essentially animal act which we share with the lowest of God’s creatures, but with this difference, that we can eat and drink for the glory of God. Saint Paul gave us the best guide to table manners when he wrote: “In eating, in drinking, in all that you do, do everything as for God’s glory. ” A person who kept this piece of advice in mind might be all at sea with a French menu or a wine-list, but it is not likely that he would be guilty of the selfishness and uncouthness which can so easily degrade the act of eating.
Man has come a long way since his primitive bone-gnawing days. He has learnt to regard a meal as something more than feeding-time; he has made of it an occasion for the practice of some of the most pleasing of social virtues. Above all it provides him with a means of showing hospitality to others, and there is no more gracious form of practical charity than hospitality.
We are accustomed to surround the business of meal-taking with many of the most charming refinements of social living. The sight of a well-kept table with its clean white linen, its sparkling crystal and silverware, its gleaming plates and dishes, is more than an invitation to the partaking of food: it helps to promote sociability and that sense of well-being which make a meal among friends what it should be an occasion of goodwill and mutual happiness.
Whether it be at the family table or a more formal occasion of dining-out, it is the duty of every person sharing in the meal to contribute towards the friendly spirit. This means that all should take part in the conversation. To maintain an unnecessary, or worse still, a morose silence at table is more than an exhibition of bad manners it is a failing in charity. All the outward show of elegance and high living will not make up for the absence of the atmosphere of family friendliness that should characterize the taking of meals together. If the meal is to be socially satisfying to all who share it, one must be prepared to think of others before oneself.
In the first place it is important to be punctual at meals. The need for punctuality is obvious enough when you are invited to another’s table. However, there is a tendency to think that punctuality is less important where it is a question of meals in one’s own home. It is poor reasoning to argue that your mother or wife is less worthy than others of the courtesy of being punctual. As was said in an earlier chapter, men are too much inclined to take their mothers or wives for granted where meals are concerned.
When conversing at table, you should not discuss food, especially your likes and dislikes. Similarly any reference to diets and dieting should be kept for another time. If, however, you must diet, let it be done with as little fuss and comment as possible. Also, when you are dining out as an invited guest, no comment on the quality of the food is called for; you are expected to take that for granted. But in your own home an occasional word of commendation of the dishes prepared for the family will be appreciated by your mother or wife.
A trial to mothers, wives and cooks is the person who has a long list of fads and fancies. This type ranges all the way from the spoilt child who refuses to see any value in vegetables, to the practised gourmet who demands pedigreed oysters. Provided you enjoy normal health, you will be more welcome at any table, including the family table, if you make a point of eating whatever is put before you. It is worth-while trying to develop a taste for dishes which you dislike but which you cannot very well avoid.
Some General Principles
Let us now look at some practical points of table manners with a general application. We shall then go on to consider the rules that apply to more formal occasions.
Prayer Before the Meal
Taking your meal without a prayer is like coming to a host without a word of greeting or thanks. The Christian gentleman, ever living in the presence of God, is grateful to God for all things. For this reason he pauses a while before the meal to ask God’s blessing and to thank Him for His gifts. Apart from it being the first and most essential point of etiquette, it is also for the father of the family, a most excellent and important opportunity to teach his children to pray.
Sitting Down at Table
Sit comfortably at table in such a position that you can incline forward slightly as you take your food. This gives you easier access to what is on the table and also prevents any morsel of food that may fall, from soiling your clothing. Do not stretch your legs out under the table thus causing inconvenience to those opposite you. Keep your hands away from the table until you are served. You should also keep your elbows to your side. Sometimes young people, by reason of a lack of height or a difficulty in manipulating the cutlery, spread their elbows in a manner which is most disconcerting to those seated beside them.
During the course of the meal the elbows should be kept off the table. Towards the end of the meal when the table has been partly cleared more latitude is allowed in this matter. Normally no more than your forearm should rest on the table.
A gentleman should lift out the chair of the lady who is to sit beside him. He moves the chair into the table behind her when she is ready to sit down. At the end of the meal he should also be ready to assist the lady with her chair.
The serviette should be only partly unfolded and then spread lightly on your lap. It should not be opened right out and tucked under the chin. To a guest who made this mistake a hotel waiter once remarked, “What’s it to be, sir, haircut or shave?” The serviette should be used during the meal for wiping the lips and the fingers, but generally it should be kept out of sight. To mop your face with it would display very crude manners indeed. When dining in your own home, it is usual to fold the serviette at the end of the meal and place it in the holder provided. The same applies when you are dining away at a table where you expect to take a number of meals. On other occasions, when you are a guest at table, you should not fold the serviette at the end of the meal, but simply leave it unfolded on the table just to the left of your place.
Handling the Tools
If your “cover” (that is, your place at table with all the necessary utensils) is correctly set, the cutlery will be so arranged that you work from the outside implements as you go through the various courses. In most cases, therefore, your soup-spoon will be on the outside in readiness for the first course. Some persons seem to have difficulty in acquiring complete ease in the use of knife, fork and spoon, while others develop annoying mannerisms in their use.
The correct way to use knife or fork is to rest the handle in the palm of the hand with the forefinger down the back of the handle. A common fault is to hold the knife in the manner of a pen with the handle protruding upwards between thumb and forefinger. A spoon should be held between thumb and forefinger, with the handle resting lightly along the forefinger. It should not be gripped like a hammer.
Food should never be taken to the mouth with the knife. Your sword-swallowing prowess will be better displayed at a circus than at the family table. When you are taking soup, the movement of the spoon on the plate should be away from you and not towards you. The latter motion can look disgustingly like a shoveling operation. Soup should be taken from the side of the spoon, which should be slightly tilted in order to avoid that unpleasant “slurp” that might speak well for the quality of the soup but not for your manners. When necessary, the soup-plate should be tilted away from you and not towards you. On the other hand, you may tilt the plate towards you when taking cereals or dessert.
It is usual to provide a special knife and fork for a fish course. These are generally of silver and are distinguished from other table cutlery by being more ornamental. Knives, forks or spoons should be provided for dishes used in common, such as butter, jam, sugar, salad. To use your own cutlery for this purpose is contrary to good manners.
From time to time during each course you should put down your knife and fork. A non-stop action when dealing with food is always suggestive of greediness and bad training. Make sure that you rest your implements on the plate, and not partly on the table-cloth. They should be placed with the blade of the knife facing left and the prongs of the fork pointing downwards. The knife and fork should not be placed side by side, as this would indicate to the waiter or attendant that you had finished the course. To indicate that you have finished you place the knife and fork side by side across the plate with the prongs of the fork upward. The spoon is always placed with the bowl facing up. Never leave your teaspoon standing in your cup.
It is an offence to use your cutlery noisily, especially by clattering knife, fork or spoon against the plate in your endeavour to scrape up the last morsel. It is better to leave a little on your plate than to annoy others in this way.