Last week, we continued our new series, "Food Pairing for the Modern Sophisticate," with an instructive piece about the best foods to eat while super drunk. This helpful and educational offering proffered the best edible suggestions for both the casual imbiber out for a night on the town and for the serious enthusiast staring down day 12 of an epic martini bender. Offering aid to the modern socialite, our series continues this week with a few words, not about pairing food, but how to convey food and drink from the plate or bottle to the mouth in a sophisticated, debonair and amusing fashion.
"Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything."
~Evelyn Waugh, famous novelist, snoot
"Manners are what the dumb have in place of wit, grace and a loaded pistol."
~Jason Sheehan, famous food writer, jerk
Does anyone really care these days about proper table settings? Is it truly a mark of class and sophistication to know which fork to use for which course, which direction to pass a plate and when to employ finger bowls?No. Those who care deeply about such things are almost invariably the kinds of people who also care deeply about things like good breeding, the death tax, Protestant morals and Martha Stewart and are, therefore, no fun at good parties. Anyone who expresses an opinion about where to place the fish knife in relation to the coffee spoon are also likely to express their opinions about the dress, carriage and parentage of their guests and so make for bad hosts and hostesses. If one should find one's self at a party arranged by such a creature, it is one's duty as an urbane guest and man-about-town instruct them in the modern mores of the table by deliberately misusing every possible implement proffered and throwing up in the punch bowl.
On the other hand, yes. They matter a lot. Why? Because modern manners and etiquette (of which table manners are the bedrock component) have nothing whatsoever to do with doing the right thing, but rather how to look good while doing wrong. They are all about form over substance--which is a good thing because, otherwise, most rich mens' daughters couldn't function in an IHOP dining room and most rich men would be chased from the premises by the customers and beaten bloody in the streets. Manners used to be what separated the classes--the rich from the poor and the educated from those robbing their houses while they are out attending charity balls. Today, they exist solely to separate the classy from the classless, allowing those with manners to pillage and scream, do drugs, throw food, get their own reality shows, destabilize international banking systems and generally act like overgrown 14-year-olds in public while those without can only sit in their trailers eating mayonnaise with a spoon, clucking their tongues and watching the exploits of the mannered on E!.
As noted above, table manners--knowing how to set a proper table and how to best employ all the various implements arrayed thereupon--are the foundation of good manners overall. But in this modern age, it can be daunting to face down a full and formal dinner service. So for those of you who do not frequent ambassadorial balls, lawn fetes, divorce proceedings (which, in the world of the exquisitely mannered, always take place over a formal dinner with the maximum number of witnesses and, generally, a reality TV crew) or the weddings of royalty, here is a quick primer on some of the more unusual pieces of cutlery or glassware you might run across, and what to do with them when you do.
1) The properly laid table
The image above shows the simplest possible expression of the formal and informal table settings. It is an excellent guide for those needing to impress someone or shame one's houseguests, and should be used as a way for a newlywed couple to get more silver and serviceware out of stingy relatives--all of which can be immediately pawned for the cash to buy something more useful, like drugs, home electronics or an annulment.
From these two basic table arrangements, we can add any number of specialized and unusual implements which might include (but are not limited to) fish knives, shellfish forks, oyster mallets, cocaine spoons, demitasse spoons, gelato forks, ice hammers, brandy snifters, pie tongs, gravy boats, sauce boats, saltcellars, peppermills, shrimp fork, commemorative shot glasses, table shears, eel spikes, bonesaws, et cetera. Under normal usage, this cutlery should be placed by the hostess in random order, moving outward from the center plate, and in differing arrangements from setting to setting in order to give the guests something to talk about other than her husband's recent embezzlement conviction or her godawful roast. If a more original setting is called for, remove all spoons from the setting and serve only liquids (like whiskey and soup). If there is some concern that annoying the guests may adversely affect the host's social standing, then she really ought to find new friends.
2) Specialized silverware
As the name suggests, this is a fork used for spearing oysters--generally off of other people's plates. It is considered rude to tie a shoelace to one end and throw the oyster fork like a tiny harpoon while reciting "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" unless one is absolutely sure they can hit an oyster from three seats away. On the other hand, it is perfectly appropriate, if children are present, to arm them with the oyster fork and have them fight the host's house pets (that's what the knife blade on the end is for). Betting is encouraged, but wagers of less than a hundred dollars are considered rude. Especially if you're betting on the cat.
At fashionable parties, it is customary to offer a drugs course. If supermodels, C-list Hollywood actors or popular musicians are present, the drugs course should follow the water course and be followed by the Otter Pops course. If writers, artists or other "creative" types are in attendance, one should count the cocaine spoons both before service and after, then make a party game of guessing who stole those that are missing. If A-list Hollywood actors, right-wing political candidates or banking executives are among the guests, one can safely skip the drugs course because the guests have no doubt brought their own.
As mentioned yesterday in the Surly Gourmand's piece about Rene Redzepi's reception/signing at Mistral Kitchen, the ice hammer is becoming a de rigueur item on the fashionable table--particularly the Scandinavian table. As its name suggests, it is used for crushing ice for cocktails, but may also be employed to make "artistic adjustments" to any ice sculptures or statuary in the host's home, to knock the wangs off of garden cherubs or Michelangelo's David in the name of common decency (said wangs should then be used like ice cubes in the nearest available cocktail), or to crush the skulls of one's romantic rivals.
Please note: All reputable modern sources agree that the proper form for challenging someone to an ice hammer duel is as follows.
1) The challenger should leap onto the table brandishing the ice hammer and shout, "Thunderdome!" at the top of his or her lungs while pointing the hammer at the challengee.
2) Both opponents will then strip down until barechested. Lacrosse pads (if available) should be worn. Or any leather bondage gear (check the hostesses bedroom closet). As you are no doubt thinking, the ice hammer duel is a wonderful way to get a look at another guest's breasts without filling her full of drinks and ketamine first, but one should be very sure that he can take her before attempting this ruse de déjeuner. Accidentally challenging the host's daughter who was a state champion kickboxer in college will lead to nothing but embarrassment.
3) While the guests chant "Two men enter, one man leaves," the challengers will face off in the sitting room, parlour or billiard room. If the challenge was offered in public (say in a fine restaurant or ballroom), the combat should occur in the alley or loading dock.
4) The fight will continue until one opponent obviously has the upper hand. He will then ask, "Who rules Bartertown?" If the loser responds, "You rule Bartertown," his life will be spared and everyone can go back to their dinners. If not, one sharp blow to the back of the neck is the preferred method for concluding the combat, followed by one sharp blow to the back of the neck of any lawyers or law enforcement officials in the crowd.
This one is really just for the amusement of the host or hostess. Gelato should be served after the drugs course, and only after all other silverware has been removed. A small saucer, crossed by the gelato fork should be placed in front of each guest, followed by a dish of gelato that has already begun to soften.
For the guest, the proper use of the gelato fork is to horribly scratch up the host or hostess's antique teak wood table that was shipped over from the old country 10 generations ago. Remember: if you are going to use the gelato fork to scratch initials into the table, don't use your own initials. or if you do use your own initials, be sure to do something else even more horrible and damaging later in the night (like ruining the host's Persian rug, credit rating or wife's reputation) so that the initial-carving incident will just look like a thoughtless prank in comparison.
3) Specialized glassware
Designed to hold bottles chilled at table. Other acceptable uses include vomiting (into), smashing (of, in a fit of pique), dousing (localized fires, likely caused by you) and wearing as a helmet during ice hammer duels.
A brandy snifter should never be placed as part of a table setting during dinner. Brandy is for the sitting room afterwards.
As a guest, it is your responsibility to get a hold of a brandy snifter as soon as possible and consume all liquids from it--including soups and sauces. Why? because nothing looks classier than a brandy snifter, except...
Unlike the brandy snifter, a martini glass has only one use: conveying gin and olives from the bottle to the coolest person in the room. It should also be noted that, being clear, martinis are the perfect drink for classy parties because the vomiting brought on by drinking enough of them to tolerate the company will not stain one's clothes.
If, on the other hand, you are looking to permanently damage the host or hostess's carpets/upholstery/dog (possibly as revenge for certain choices made on the seating chart or guest list), then it is alright to fill a martini glass with colored beverages. The writer suggests red wine, Bailey's Irish Cream or the ever-popular demiglace-and-vodka cocktail.