Dabbing at crumbs and other gestures of dining decorum

HAPPY EATER

February 27, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I was sitting in the splendor of Citronelle restaurant savoring forkfuls of roasted duck with bordelaise cinnamon sauce and taking sips of a knock-your-cuff links-off red wine, Autard '89 Chateauneuf Du Pape, when suddenly a crumb appeared on the corner of my mouth.

The crumb was bad form. It had to be disposed of, properly. I picked up my napkin and brought it to the corner of my mouth. I did not blot or wipe with the napkin. I dabbed. The crumb was history.

I knew that my dinner companion, etiquette expert Mary Mitchell, approved of my dabbing. She was, of course, far too polite to say anything about my napkin maneuvers.

A few hours earlier Ms. Mitchell had demonstrated that very napkin move to a gathering of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association at their meeting in the Latham Hotel. I had a dinner date with Ms. Mitchell. But before we dined, I sat in on her speech to the hoteliers and took notes on how I should behave.

Ms. Mitchell operates Uncommon Courtesies, a Philadelphia-based firm specializing in spreading the social graces. She writes "Ms. Demeanor," a nationally syndicated social-advice column for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A tall, striking woman of 44, Ms. Mitchell has taught manners to adults and children, including a fine-dining class to an eighth-grade class in a rough, North Philadelphia neighborhood.

The other night, dressed in a black dress and pearls, she told about 60 well-dressed ladies and gentlemen that bad manners were bad for business. "A client will never tell you that your breath is bad, your grammar is bad or your table manners are bad," she said. "But you will not get the contract, and you won't know why. Maybe the client will say something like, it "was a bad fit."

The deal could have fallen through, she told the group, because the potential client was upset that you slumped at the table, or talked with your mouth full.

Ms. Mitchell used color slides and silverware to demonstrate some of her basic points of good behavior, such as how to hold a knife and how to dab with the napkin. She also passed out a 15-question, true-false dining awareness quiz. Question: Dinner conversation can include talk about dissecting a frog. Answer: false. Question: I pick up the fork farthest from my plate, even when there are four of them at my place setting. Answer: true.

After taking the quiz -- I would tell you how I fared, but bragging is impolite -- I went to dinner with the etiquette expert. During the meal I checked my behavior to make sure I avoided the common dining mistakes Ms. Mitchell had warned about.

For example, I checked to make sure I was using the proper silverware. I used the big fork, the entree fork, to eat the duck. The smaller fork was for the seafood course, which Ms. Mitchell ** and I skipped. I positioned my knife so the blade faced in. This practice is left over, it seems, from the days when daggers were used at the dinner table. Back then if you pointed your knife the wrong way, you had a feud on your hands.

I sat up straight in my chair, and kept my elbows off the table. I kept my mouth closed, at least until I swallowed. I was careful how I buttered my bread. Rather than slathering up an entire piece of bread,I dealt with the bread one bite at a time. I broke off a small piece, buttered it and ate it.

I did not leave lipstick stains on the wine glass. This was easy, since I was not wearing lipstick. But I noticed that Ms. Mitchell, who was wearing lipstick, was somehow able to sip without leaving stains on the glasses. During her speech she demonstrated how to drink from a wine glass without getting lipstick on the rim. It had something to do with sticking your tongue in the wine glass. It made me happy I didn't wear lipstick.

I also tried to eat at the same pace as my partner. Eating, she had said, is not a race. I did OK until dessert arrived and I zipped through the chocolate.

I did not place my briefcase, my keys, a purse or any luggage on the table. Doing so would make the table unsightly and unsanitary, Ms. Mitchell had said.

At the end of the evening, Ms. Mitchell, who was staying at the Latham, walked me to the door of the hotel, where we said our goodbyes. Being escorted to the door was a nice gesture. It made me feel civilized. And that, I gather is what good manners are supposed to do.

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