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The Emperor of Etiquette
By Michael Oakes
I recently had an occasion to attend a very formal dinner party and I was somewhat amazed at the number of guests who showed a general lack of knowledge regarding the basics of etiquette. This was evidenced most specifically at the dinner table. Although I saw nothing at this dinner party that offended me terribly, I began thinking about my upbringing and how I was taught the acceptable forms of etiquette and good manners.
There is a whole philosophy to manners and etiquette which, for the most part, involve basic courtesies and common sense. I am not being critical of those whose table transgressions caught my eye merely because I was brought up under an iron fist approach to learning good table manners. On the contrary, I realize that not everyone had the type of training I had, and I also am quite aware that some of what I was taught by my father was pure malarkey. In fact, discipline at the dinner hour when I was young has likely lead to the digestive problems that I now experience as an adult.
My father, the Emperor of Etiquette, took very seriously the following of form, manners, and socially acceptable ceremonies of what was considered proper etiquette. In our middle-class household the dinner table was the training table, a place where any member of our family could be chastised for their table misprisions. Sins such as not passing an item correctly, poor posture while seated at the table, or taking too large a bite would most certainly catch the focus of my father's discerning eye.
Dear old dad was, of course, the master of proper etiquette: pedagogic wonder of all that is right socially, a charter member and celebrated Knight of the Royal Order of the Fork and Spoon. He was Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and Tish Baldrige all rolled (no, make that neatly folded and perfectly placed) into one.
He came from a fairly well-to-do Midwestern family that was genteel with a lower case "g". My dad and his younger sister had had the rules of polite decorum forced into their mouths on silver spoons, chewed with their straightened teeth exactly twenty times, and swallowed noiselessly.
My mother, on the other hand, came from quite a different social and economic background as my father, and had not been afforded the luxury of a parent who literally created rules of etiquette as a hobby. Her dad had been a millright for the railroad and had more important concerns regarding the dinner table, such as how to keep food on it.
My mother, like many ladies of that genre, had an innate sense of what was proper and picked up most of the finer points along the way. She seldom felt the sting of the Emperor's tongue, but once I remember her receiving a barb from him regarding how fast she had eaten her dinner. Since we had no servants, she worked hard to get the dinner on the table and would often eat rather hurriedly and be finished ahead of the rest of us. This was partly because she did less conversing, but mostly because she was tired and hungry. She looked after her husband and three children, cleaned an immense house without help, did the washing and ironing, and put together three good meals every day.
As I recall, my father's comment to her regarding her speed eating was, "Well, you won!" This was of course his way of saying she had finished her dinner far ahead of the rest of us and had won the race. I thought at the time that she might place her fork neatly between his second and third ribs, but she said nothing and shot him a look that let him know that he was skating on thin ice, trying that stuff with her. Since my mother had apparently never embarrassed him socially, my father set out to make sure that their children wouldn't either.
Although the main course curriculum might have been named "In and Around the Table", he taught us an upperdivision course in “Dealing with People in Social Situations." This focused on such topics as the firm handshake, looking someone in the eye when one said, "How do you do, sir", (or Ma'am) and just how lightly one grips a woman's hand if she extends it. We were all taught to stand when a lady or an adult entered a room, and how to attend to doors and chairs for the ladies. All the basics, basically.
But, back to the training table, where cutting and eating your meat improperly could draw a "Stabbing" call, a "Too big of a bite", or a "Shoveling" penalty; all major infractions, I should add.
And there would be no continental-styled single-handed knife and fork foolishness at his table. One's food was to be cut with the fork in the left hand to secure the food, while the right wielded the knife. Now there's nothing wrong with that in principle, but here's the silly part: we then had to extract the fork from the meat, set the knife down across the top of the plate, move the fork to the right hand, and re-pierce the piece just cut with the fork tines up, mind you, and then proceed to lift it to one's mouth. All this for one bite!
The European's have the right idea with their single-handed style of eating. And, they can even load food on the back of their knives and forks if they wish. As a child I reasoned that this was an efficient method of eating, and I once tried to persuade my father that I was going to "eat like a European from now on." Dad said that would be fine, but that I should eat like a European in the kitchen with the cocker spaniel, whom, he reminded me, was a product of England.
The severity of the criticism at the table and the way venial punishment was meted out was directly proportionate with the Emperor's disposition that particular day. I remember a time when he was undergoing some painful dental work and we would suffer terrible attacks at the table.
He was particularly tough on his princess, my sister, who was four years my senior. He wanted his only daughter to be the perfect lady. He would monitor her closely correcting her grammar, table manners, and even her wardrobe choices. Such harassment always prompted my mother to say in mockery of him under her breath, "I'm a lady goddammit, and don't you forget it!"
Being the youngest, a bit spoiled and a smart-mouthed kid, I took the manners game as a challenge. By an early age I knew what was right and what was wrong at the table, but the game for me was to see how much I could get by with, much to the delight of my brother and sister.
For instance, and because I sat to my father's right, if I stayed in profile, I could hang a green bean from my right nostril where it would escape his view. If I timed it just right, I could insert the bean in my nose just as my sister was taking a swallow of milk and, with a quick kick under the table to get her attention, I could make her pass milk through her nose.
But my brother, a year older than my sister, took the training table very seriously and was rarely even called for high forking, or napkin misconduct. He did, however, live vicariously through by misbehavior and was quick to encourage me to do something rude. My father would see us laughing, I could usually get my mother to laugh too, and know instinctively that I was behind it. He felt the conspiracy and either laughed along, or would tell me to shape up or I'd be eating off the kitchen tile with my four-legged European friend.
Too serious an infraction could get one "gang-mannered", which occurred when the Emperor would literally throw the etiquette book at you. A barrage. He'd do that to my brother sometimes, just to keep the criticism balanced among his three children, but I was the one who got it the most. "Sit up straight, you're eating too fast, ask for something to be passed, Michael, don't reach, this isn't a boarding house, for Christ's sake!"
For some reason there were never water glasses on our table and we children drank milk with our meal, or at least tried to. He hated it when we washed down our food with a gulp of cold milk. There was something about a nice cold drink of milk that I couldn't resist, and that was my most common offense. It got so that I'd have to put my glass in the center of the table and not have even so much as a sip until I ate most of my food. It was torture. Nothing like packing away a big, salty pork chop and a baked potato without a drink of anything. He claimed it harmed one's digestion to follow food too quickly with liquid. I asked him once where he went to med school. Not a good question.
Then there were passing drills. He insisted that we pass and accept items on the table with our right hands only. Now, in most of the manner manuals I've consulted, that is not really a hard and fast rule. Not a rule at all, but to the Emperor of Etiquette, it became law at our table. He made his point with me one evening by dumping the butter plate into my lap when I reached for it with my left hand. He said, "Right hand, Michael, right hand." He made his point. In fact, he made his point so well that for years I watched him like a hawk, just waiting for an opportunity to return the favor. I was afraid I’d grow up and move away before I could get back at him. But, it happened one night when he was in particularly good spirits, he said, "Michael, would you pass me the butter please?" and extended his left hand to receive the butter dish. I went out of my way to flip it over his grasp and into his grey-flanneled lap. He looked down at his lap and up at me with such a wonderful amazed expression, and before he could speak I said, "Right hand, dad, right hand." He squirmed for a while, but never said a word. I had him dead to rights. I thought my mother would have a seizure, she laughed so hard.
There was also roll playing. If you buttered a roll in it's entirety, as opposed to breaking off a bite-sized piece and applying just the right amount of butter, (too much and you could draw ten minutes for "slathering") he'd call you on it.
Choosing the right utensil when there was a wide choice was always fairly easy because all you really had to do was start with the little outside fork and work your way inward. I do admit that over the years I have encountered several new emplacements of knives, forks and spoons that go beyond the basic salad fork, a dinner fork, and pair of knives, a spoon for soup and a tea spoon and dessert fork or a spoon. These hybrid tables are usually found in the she-she restaurants where there seems to be an abundance of extra utensils and it is mandatory to stuff a napkin into the mouth of a wine glass. That way you can get a hint of lint in your Merlot.
I also admit that in my youth I waited and watched other people to see which implement they chose for certain situations. You do what you have to do to survive a social faux pas, but the cardinal sin is getting caught looking at someone else's moves. Most of the time they're wrong anyway.
My father's teaching approach to proper etiquette may seem extreme to some. In fact, I always thought he was more than a little obsessive about it. Over the years I have chosen to dismiss some of his more arcane points of etiquette as silly. And surely my years away at college and the military have helped to erode some of what I was taught. But don’t get me wrong, I believe that being taught the proper rules of etiquette is a bonus for anyone in an age when it seems that there is less emphasis being directed to such things.
To have these observations come to me on the heels of a very nice dinner party, at which I was most likely the best mannered, seems a cruel trick being played on me. All I really wanted to do was nudge someone with my toe beneath the table and open my mouth real wide to show them my last bite.