We have our napkins, our knotted-up veggies, our situational etiquette

Janet's World

December 23, 2007|By Janet Gilbert

True or false? At a formal dinner, the napkin is always to the diner's left - specifically, to the left of the fork or forks.

Everyone knows that the answer to this important etiquette question is: "True, usually. More or less. It depends."

Recently, I was at a formal dinner, and I confidently took the napkin to my left, only to discover I had stolen the napkin of the person on my left, because this time the napkins had been cleverly set up in the coffee cups to the right.

Aha! The "napkin in the beverage vessel" negates the widely recognized "napkin on the left" rule, because drinks are always placed to the diner's right. So, you must refer to the hierarchy of the dishes, wherein the beverage always trumps the napkin. This is because you could live with a dirty face, but not without wine or coffee. At any rate, because the diner's coffee cup is on the right, the napkin in it is the diner's napkin.

Fortunately, I knew the gracious person to my left, Lrihs Llah, whose name has been spelled backward for privacy. The fact is, Lrihs could probably beat "Miss Manners" to a pulp in the properness department, but she would not do so, because she is far too polite.

At any rate, Lrihs did not mind me whipping my napkin out of my coffee cup and setting it discreetly on her lap. She then reminded me of the special clue to formal dining - if you make the "OK" signs with your hands under the table, you form a lower case "b" on the left and a lower case "d" on the right, indicating where your bread and drink are, respectively.

I had seen this before - and had never experienced difficulty in locating my bread and drink - but what I had failed to realize is that anything in my drink glass, such as a diamond-encrusted brassiere, would belong to me. Had there been a wad of $100 bills on my butter plate, I could safely assume it was mine, as well. I can only hope that one of these things turns up at some future formal place setting because now I will know what to do.

Which brings me to another important etiquette question - how is one supposed to eat fancy knotted-up vegetables? What is proper?

I would have asked Lrihs, because she provided the key to the napkin situation. But she appeared to be enjoying her miniature potato cup, so I did not bother her further.

The chef must have scoured the Maryland countryside for tiny, tubular tubers so that he could scoop them out and make decorative twice-baked potatoes suitable for the appetites of doll-house inhabitants. I had a few bites of mine, and it was delicious, and then it was over, and it was time to move on to the bundled vegetables.

I suppose I can see why loose vegetables are not proper at a formal dinner. Who knows what mischief they might get into? So they must be restrained at all costs. The last thing we formal dinner patrons want is our string beans parading around our plates when we are trying to listen attentively to the evening's speaker.

Instead, while the speaker is speaking, we can stare at our vegetables and wonder how we should eat them. We also can wonder if vegetable-tying is a semester-long course in culinary school. Just about the time the speaker is wrapping it up, we can wonder if the sous-chef was wearing hygienic gloves when he gathered the uncooperative beans into a little haystack and fastened them with a flimsy carrot shaving. Then we will not want to eat them anyway.

So my advice is skip the vegetable, as you have done for most of your life. And just pray that the dessert isn't served in an edible, unmanageable chocolate shell.

Contact Janet at janet@janetgilbertonline.com

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