Saturday, April 20, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Mind Your Manners

This 1947 gem from no less than Mrs. Edwin Main (Emily) Post actually contains a great deal of very useful advice - little nuggets that, judging from the dinners I go to, not a few persons in comparatively lofty positions could learn much from.

I particularly enjoy the several things that many would now think likely to be the height of gaucherie that Mrs. Post reminds us are quite correct:  drinking from one's soup cup, for example, or the almost entirely forgotten fact that bread plates are not used at a formal dinner, and the bread (if any) is simply deposited on the tablecloth (for sopping purposes only, please, no butter).  I'm also quite taken with the parade of horrors committed by Mrs. Inexcusable Cigarette, who was clearly unused to human companionship of any kind, poor thing.

And wasn't American food plain?  Those cubed potatoes look to be strangers even to a little pepper, and you just know that Mrs. Post's cook had never heard of cilantro, fenugreek, or hoisin sauce.  At least she rose to exotic little touches like that challenging ethnic treat, SPAH-ghetti, and bravo to attractive Virginia Hopkins for managing it so deftly.

This missive from the Emily Post Institute (Emily Post, President) may have been filmed a decade or two before my time, but this was the world I was raised in.  There is not a little resemblance between Mrs. Post there in her garden and my sainted Grandmother Muscato, who actually did serve whole poached fruit for dessert and expect one tidily to cut around the stone, at a table that was never less neatly set than here, three meals a day.  Under her expert guidance, her Alice (She's a Treasure)* put out sauces no less drenching than Mrs. Post's Hollandaise, not to mention a creampuff in syrup that I'm sure would give Mrs. P's a run for its money. Even now, all these years later, I still feel a twinge of guilt, a cool draught over one shoulder, when I eat a bowl of cereal, milk poured directly from the fridge, perched on a stool, sans underplate, sans placemat, sans any of the things that "separate us from the savages, dear.  Sit up."

At a time when we may need more than a little reminding of the basic rules of civilization, on levels even more significant (if such were possible! cries the shade of Grandma M.) than table manners, they do remain a place to start. Tonight I think we'll eat in the dining room, and while we may not rise to finger bowls, we can at least be more Virginia than Inexcusable.  It's a start.

*  I actually for a little while thought that might be the housekeeper's last name...


  1. I'm surprised Mme. Post did not address the vexing question of reaching the soup when your giant dowager bust which hangs to your waist also blocks your grasp.

    Am I shallow for thinking I would prefer Ms Inexcusable's company over Virginia's prissy correctness? You know la Inexcusable not only eats her asparagus with her fingers, she cracks jokes about the way it makes her pee smell.

  2. Grandmother's solution to that first issue was, in the advance of any problem, an exceptionally capacious napkin, and in one's wake, an extra brooch or two (or more). as a particular costume approached its appointed time for dry-cleaning, she took on the look of a well-decorated Christmas tree...

  3. My mother was a stickler for good table manners.

    As well, all items must be served in an attractive manner.

    We had a silver toast rack, sugar tongs, a salt cellar and salt spoon, etc. To place a carton of milk on the table was unheard of. One must pour the milk into a serving pitcher before placing it on the table.

    I was shocked (as would be my mother) by Emily’s suggestion to “Blow your nose if you must.”

    Recently, a friend visited for dinner. Suffering from allergies (poor thing) he blew his nose loudly several times during the meal.

    Frankly, I didn’t know what to say so I kept quiet. Regardless of what Ms. Post has to say on the matter, I feel one should excuse oneself from the table.

    However, if YOU, dearest Muscato, have any advice on the matter, I’m listening.

    1. As long as you use your own dainty fresh handkerchief, and not my damask napkin, I think a tiny honk or two is acceptable. However, if you're going to be what the pulmonologists have been chatting about with me for the past three weeks, "productive," then get your ass to the powder room.

      That goes twice if what you're blowing isn't your nose, but another guest. And that should happen only between dessert and the cheese plate.

    2. Sound advice. Thank you, Muscato.

  4. And did we note the location of the studio?

  5. Thanks very much for this. Oh, not for me of course, but for dems dat needs it.

    *and, I'm with MJ, nose blowing at table is absolutely inexcusable. I don't care what the old dame says.

  6. So help me out Muscato, why no bread plates at formal dinner?

    1. In order to be certain of an absolutely correct response, dear Cookie, I turned to nothing less than my own well-thumbed copy of Mrs. Post's Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, which was a wedding gift to Mother Muscato from her mother-in-law, Grandmother Muscato. You can imagine how thrilled she was to get it...

      In any case, on this topic, Mrs. Post, normally so thorough and insightful (her sentences can be longer and more complicated even than mine) is a little cryptic: "No bread plates are ever on a table where there is no butter, and no butter is ever served at a formal dinner."

      It sounds a little bit like one of those philosophical puzzles, but it was accepted at our house on the same basis as the other Great Mysteries, things like the Trinity and the White Shoe Commandment.

  7. Hang on a second. That hapless young lady is eating her soup with a dessert spoon, not a soup spoon. Or this that an American thing to not have different spoons?

    As to the other comments, indeed. Dinner at my own grandmother's house (paternal side), was always a terrifying affair. That instruction was required at all became an ongoing issue in the war between my mother and her MiL, and it usually took the form of a "no dear", without any hint as to the nature of the transgression or the appropriate remedy.

    Upon her death, amongst other things I was given both the silverware and the dining room furniture. So miserable were the memories associated with both that the furniture was quickly consigned to the auctioneer and the silver quietly moulders in storage. Brrrrr.

    1. Ah, the great mystery of soup spoons! It's yet another example - as with bread, above - in which formal dinners are actually rather simpler than ordinary dining, rather than the reverse.

      So-called dessert spoons (or their close relatives, place spoons) are in fact used for clear soups, at either regular or formal meals, as clear soups are served in flat soup plates (as seen in the video). Round-bowled soup spoons are used with two-handled round soup cups, the use of which is properly reserved for cream soups (which is why they're often called, logically enough, cream soup spoons). Such soups are considered too heavy to feature in formal dinners, where the focus is on several courses of meat, fish, or fowl (or sometimes all three) and other courses, and so a clear soup (and flat plate/large spoon combo) is the norm.

      Interesting, isn't it, that in 1947, that nuance would be so clear that Mrs. Post didn't even need to raise it...

      As for your languishing silver, have you thought of swapping it for a less-fraught pattern? I know several people who've done just that (for either aesthetic or emotional reason) and so have a set of sterling they can in good conscience enjoy using.

      Myself, I have Mother Muscato's wedding silver, and I use it whenever possible. Of the disposition of Grandmother's multitudinous flatware, the less said the better, but let's just say its distribution and ultimate fate stands as one of the landmark family disputes of the late 20th century...

    2. Ha! Who knew! Thank you (as always) for the concise yet erudite explanation. It may indeed explain why I have SO many spoons and (interestingly), why all the 'dessert' spoons are not identical!

      As to potential disposal, the pattern itself is quite restrained. There is also a certain lingering knowledge in being able to produce 16 of everything (fruit forks, cake forks, salad forks, fish forks... you get the picture), but that is best left to the slightly arch dinner parties held in my younger years.

      PS our 'landmark family dispute' revolved around the breakup of the Limoges....