My mother did what she could to teach us table manners, but the Sixties undid them completely.
“Manners are bourgeois”, said a friend of mine; and as a protest he washed only one side of the dinner plates. “Another one of society’s attempts at stifling individualism and creativity”. He picked peas off the platter with his fingers, chewed with his mouth open, used his napkin as a handkerchief, and stabbed his meat like a Hun.
Many years later I had dinner with him. He had left his radicalism far behind and had become a Washington lawyer. To my surprise he still picked at bits of chicken fat and carrots from the serving dish, sucked the fat off of each finger, chewed with his mouth so wide that I could see the bolus of fat, gristle, and flesh being rolled around and shaped, and smeared his face with the back of his hand when he was finished. His bad manners had not been a protest against bourgeois mores. He actually ate like a pig.
Table manners back in the Fifties were comprehensive and rigorously enforced. “Sit up straight…keep your elbows off the table….keep your mouth closed when you chew…take small mouthfuls…keep your hand in your lap…chew slowly…” They were endless, and it was hard to remember them all. Of course whenever my mother was out of the room my sister and I had belching contests to see how far we could get through the alphabet but perked up when she came back in, model children in a model age.
I realize now that more of my mothers table manners stuck than I realized.
The orchestra leader. “Listen, Hal”, said a diner at Le Diplomate, a tony restaurant on the newly-gentrified 14th Street corridor, “Ya just gotta love the Israelis. They don’t take shit from anybody”. Here he waved his fork like a baton as he became more agitated. As he went through his crescendos and diminuendos, glissandos, and scherzos, his fork flew through the air. At his most animated he slashed the air like a sabre, waved it in circles as he imagined Israeli helicopter gunships circling Hamas rocket emplacements and raining a fiery hell down upon them. He paused for emphasis, stabbed a piece of meat, sucked it off the tines, and began again, spattering drops of juice on the summer frock of his wife.
The slouch. Barney Lerner hunched over his curry like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. He shoveled in a great spoonful of rice, sucked in the hot, rich sauce, and swirled the mixture around in his mouth before swallowing it. His mouth was no more than six inches from the plate, and as he picked up steam he looked like a crab using its pincers on a dead fish. His left hand pushed the rice and remaining curry sauce onto the fork in his right, and he shoved it the short distance into his mouth. He had rounded shoulders anyway, and the image of him from behind was of some great ape ripping apart a meal. It was disgusting.
The gaping cakehole. I am sure that Arnold Solomon had never looked at himself in the mirror when he was chewing – who ever did? But had he been curious, he would have seen a mess of half-chewed food, striated and wet with saliva being pushed around by a fat tongue behind yellowed teeth. And he would have chewed with his mouth closed at table. No such luck, of course, and because Peter was an old family friend, we kept inviting him to dinner and looking at the Edo prints on the wall when he started to chew. The gluey, disgusting, glob of food in his mouth was bad enough, but he chewed slowly so he could talk, so you could hear the food being chewed as his jaws worked the tough bits. He had a habit of licking his lips after every swallow and his tongue darted out like a lizard. To make matters worse, he used his tongue to clean his gums, and anyone sitting across from him had to watch this blue swollen thing, backside-with-veins up, swishing from side to side, top to bottom. It was disgusting.
Finger lickin’ good. My roast chicken is always a big hit. Julia Child has remarked that the sign of a good cook is his roast chicken. Although there is nothing simpler, getting the bird done to perfection requires proportion and attention to detail. The skin should be browned and crispy while the meat should be tender and succulent. The mustard used to coat the chicken should be French, spicy, and of high quality. The rosemary should be Mediterranean and air-dried. The lemon stuffed in the cavity should be sweet and fragrant; and the cloves of garlic inserted cannot be either too small or too large. In any case, there is usually nothing left on the serving platter at the end of the meal, but Paul Selig can always find something, He picks at the tasty morsels of crispy wing ends, bits of liver, and the odd leaf of rosemary. He has no hesitation in dipping his fingers into the gravy, fishing out the odds and ends, putting them in his mouth, and then sucking the savory sauce off his fingers. He does not do this discreetly but with relish, slowly sucking each one in a half-erotic way. He then wipes his fingers on his napkin, by the end of the meal a revolting rag of grease, gravy, and chicken skin, tosses it on the table and starts over again. Disgusting.
I am no Emily Post and after my years growing up, I knew that my table manners had slipped badly. Boarding school didn’t help, for there is no way that even the most well-bred and –disciplined adolescent boys can possibly keep up the standards of their mothers. The Rule of the Lowest Common Denominator always applied, and there were always a few outliers who came to Lefferts with no table manners at all. In an inversion role modeling, we all subconsciously mimicked them; and by the end of the year were shoveling food, eating as fast as chewing and swallowing allowed, and licking, sucking, and picking whenever and however we wanted.
We were assigned to tables, and the master of ours, Mr. Adams, was an Armenian American whose family barely escaped the Turkish genocide. He was a lovely man, very caring and thoughtful, but he had brought his Middle Eastern manners with him. Eating with your hands in Armenia was perfectly all right, and it was easy to see how clumsy Mr. Adams was with a knife and fork even after the many years he had been in America. The point being that he was no role model for good table manners. Any matron from the North Shore, Groton, or Shawnee Mission, had she seen us scarfing our meal, would have been appalled at what must have looked like a pride of lions ripping apart a wildebeest.
I pulled myself together when I went out on dates, but had to catch myself doing some of the picking and sucking I now find so offensive. The least common denominator phenomenon so obvious at Lefferts was no different in my own home. No matter how much my wife would get after the children to sit up straight, eat slowly, and keep their elbows off the table, they descended to my level.
“Table manners are bourgeois”, said my son one day to his mother in an ironic reprise of my friend, Saul. “Why should I do something I don’t believe in?”
My wife hesitated for a moment, composed herself, and said, “Because I have to sit across from you. Manners are for me, not you.”
‘Aha’, said the surprised but understanding look on my son’s face. So that’s the answer; and it was an epiphany for all of us who had thoughtlessly waved our forks, chewed loudly, and picked at the plate in front of my poor wife. Meals were a lot more pleasant for her after that.
Andrew Brown, writing in The Telegraph (8.4.14) says that bad manners have gone public. It’s not enough that modern Britons have become groveling pigs at home, they feed at the trough on the train.
Private is public. People gobble as if they are enjoying a secret moment of gluttony, when in fact there are other human beings all around. On my train, you see burritos pushed into faces, chipotle sauce running in rivulets down chins, mouths gaping open like cement mixers. On the bus, the commuter who can’t quite wait to get home will crack open the Cellophane on a Marks & Sparks fruity couscous salad and fork it in.
Edward Lear’s horrid old man choked by 'a great bit of muffin on which he was stuffing’ (Photo: www.bridgemanart.com).
Luckily the Washington Metro forbids eating on the train, and for some reason even the most undisciplined teenage riders on the Green Line hold their falafel and burgers until later; but lunch hour in Farragut Square is feeding time at the zoo. Wraps, burritos, tacos, half-smokes, chili dogs, and crumb buns are scarfed, slobbered, and drooled onto the benches, grass, and walkways. It is disgusting. Brown suggests that it is the anonymity of the big city behind bad manners. No one knows you, so who cares how you eat?
Perhaps, but I know a woman of a certain age who was brought up in a proper home with silver settings, Limoges, linen napkins, and Baccarat crystal. She was never a snob and occasionally we would eat take out on the Square. She ate as carefully and thoughtfully as she did at table. She patted her lips with her napkin, took small bites, gracefully whisked off the few crumbs that had fallen onto her skirt, sat straight and properly on the bench, and quickly deposited her paper cup and napkins.
Good table manners are part of the stitching that holds the social fabric together. Small, often unnoticeable, but important ways of showing respect.
“Nonsense”, said Saul when the subject came up one day. “Everybody eats like I do. Lighten up”.
What an awful thought; but of course he was right. The Rule of the Lowest Common Denominator again. If everybody eats like a pig, then we all eat like kings.