Breaking Bread, Not Rules

Lessons from a dining etiquette course at the Experimental College.

Don't talk with your mouth full. Don't put your elbows on the table. Send a thank-you note. These commandments were no doubt an essential part of the good manners your grandmother taught you. My nana liked to say, "All civilized people use napkins." I'm not sure she knew she was supposed to unfold the napkin only halfway when dining and place the fold at her hips, or that, when she left the table for a short time, she should shake out the fabric and place it on the chair, hiding any stains. "Seeing a dirty napkin would be unpleasant for the other guests, and you must think of them," explains Iphigenia Mavromichali, instructor of the UW Experimental College class "Dining Savoir-Faire for the Novice." "Etiquette is about making people feel comfortable." An imposing figure with a strong Greek accent, Iphigenia (Fenia for short), normally teaches etiquette to business people traveling both nationally and abroad, but she's determined to spread the gospel of etiquette to the general public. To that end, Fenia taught her three-hour Experimental College class on Nov. 11, and will offer it again on Saturday, Dec. 2. At the first session, which I attended, she tested her students' table-setting skills. I did fairly well, though the placement of the dessert fork and spoon above the plate was new to me. Fenia also told me that I have been eating bread incorrectly. "It is unsightly to bring a large piece of food to your mouth and cut it with your teeth," she admonished. Instead, one should break off a bite-size morsel with the fingers, butter the bread, and bring that small piece to the mouth, repeating with each new bite. I asked Fenia about the most common faux pas she saw in restaurants. For one, she replied, diners demand faster service and act rudely toward the servers. Yet waiters aren't blameless, either. "Waiters pester diners, asking them if they are done yet," she said. "They should never do this." Yet, according to Fenia, diners are partially to blame if we do not know how to place our utensils on the plate to indicate we are finished (parallel at 11 and 4 o'clock). Alternately, we could leave the napkin on the table to the left of the plate—of course, hiding any offending stains. "The biggest mistake I see people make in restaurants," she says, "is not knowing where their bread plate is, and they inadvertently take the other person's bread." As we all know from Seinfeld, double- dipping is one of the biggest etiquette no-nos. How does the polite diner manage, then, if the restaurant brings one plate of olive oil for the bread? Fenia will resolve that conundrum, and any number of your etiquette questions, in her upcoming class.

 
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