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Table Manners

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When should I start eating?
A: Wait for your host to signal the meal's begining. The host may wish to make a formal statement, prayer or a toast before attention turns to the food. Normally, the host will verbally ask the guests to begin or start by passing a dish himself or he may begin by serving up a dish or even spreading a napkin on his lap.

Q: I am not a religious person. What should I do if a meal begins with a prayer.
A: It is well to remember that you are in another person's house and their customs should hold. If your hostess asks you to join hands or bow your head is not asking too much for you to accomodate her in this regard. Conversely, if you feel strongly about your religious tradition and are in the home of a person who pointedly does not pray before meal time, do not be ostentatious in your ritual. Be meek and humble, say your prayer silently and reverently to yourself and proceed with the meal.

Q: Who is served first?
A: Generally it is wise to begin with the children of guests, then your own children, then your guests (females always take precedence) then the female and male heads of household. If you are the host, insist that your guests begin as soon as they are served as you want them to enjoy the meal at the appropriate temperature.

Q: What should I do if I spill something?
A: A minor accident at the table is bound to happen on occasion. If you are the cause make your excuse politely and only once, then proceed to help the host to clean up the mess. If your guest makes an inadvertent move that sends pudding onto his neighbors lap, attempt to make everyone feel at ease with the situation. Accept excuses, clean up the mess with minimal fuss.

Q: What if I take a mouthful of very hot mashed potatoes?
A: Hot foods can create embarrassing situations. When confronted with hot foods, first be wary. If you do make the mistake of scooping up a mouthful of scalding casserole, then make the minimal fuss by swiftly taking a drink of water or some other cool beverage.

Q: Is it okay to tip a dish?
A: If you are reaching for the last bit of a delectable soup with your spoon, then it is permissable to tilt your dish. Just be sure to tip it away from yourself to avoid any nasty surprises in your lap.

Q: Where does the napkin go?
A: In the late middle-ages a serviette or small towel was commonly slung over the left shoulder. Today, the preferred method is to unfold the napkin in your lap.

Q: How do I get the last few peas onto my fork?
A: Try pushing peas or the last bits of other foods onto your fork with a piece of bread or the side of your knife.

Q: What if I need to sneeze?
A: If you do not have time to reach a Kleenex or the infrequently used handkerchief then use your napkin or in the final extremity, your hands to cover your mouth. If you can avoid it, don't wipe your nose on your napkin, but on a Kleenex or handkerchief.

Q: I've heard it is impolite for a guest to spice a dish. Is this true?
A: It is not wrong to spice a dish AFTER you taste it. It is the appearance of the presumption that your host does not cook well that you wish to avoid. You do not want to spice to obscure the flavor of the food, but to enhance it.

Q: A friend at a casual resturant had finished eating his meal but when the waitress offered to remove his plate he said he didn't want his plate remove. I who was still eating was curious why he didn't want his plate removed. He replied that it was poor etiquette to have one's plate removed when someone else at the table was still eating. According to him the removal of the plate was a signal to the other party at the table to hurry and finish their meal. I responded by saying that it didn't bother me and I certainly did not feel any pressure to finish my meal any faster if the waitress removed his plate. It seemd to me that it was more bothersome to him then it was to me and it was more about how he felt about it then it was about how I felt about it. I then added that staring at his unfinished dinner on his plate was far more unappetizing to me since I was still eating. What is the correct approach in this situation?

A: It is a common practice in restaurants to remove finished plates. There are several reasons for this, two of which you surmised, that a finished plate is not appetizing to look at, and it gets in the way of diners who might wish to talk, gesticulate, smoke or even consider another dish (dessert, perhaps?).

Though it is not impolite to retain a dish (he may have some purpose for doing so), your friend might find it creates difficulties. Now he must remain cognizant of its presence. He must not inadvertently swipe his sleeve over it, or bang the silver-ware, knock a glass against it, etcetera.

All circumstances considered, it is best to allow the wait staff to take the plate.

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