I distinctly remember the first time I gave a rat’s bottom about table manners.
It was only a few years ago. Z had just called to ask me on our third date: an evening visit to the Centre Pompidou (the national museum of modern art), to be followed by dinner at the trendy restaurant located on its rooftop.
“Sure, sounds good,” was my nonchalant reply. As soon as the call ended, my face contorted in panic, and I raced to Google like a terrified toddler to the protection of its sage mother.
FRENCH TABLE MANNERS, I typed maniacally. EATING ETIQUETTE IN FRANCE. UTENSILS IN FRANCE. WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE GIVEN MORE THAN ONE UTENSIL AT A TIME…IN FRANCE. VIDEOS OF FRENCH PEOPLE EATING.
I spent the afternoon investigating the topic with greater zeal than I invested in most academic research. My laptop played instructional videos on a loop while I practiced with pens and pencils before the screen. Finally, satisfied that I could mimic the habits of a bourgeois upbringing I never had, I slipped out the door to test my newly acquired talents.
Contrary to what I thought, I didn’t master French table manners that afternoon. In fact, I still haven’t mastered them.
While my upbringing certainly had its merits, I suspect it may have left me with a distinct disadvantage in the realm of table manners. To be precise, I should say disadvantages (plural) and clarify what these are:
- It’s considered polite to eat noisily in Chinese culture. If diners smack their lips or slurp their soups, they’re only indicating their appreciation of the meal. Consequently, I was never reprimanded for noisy eating as a child and didn’t even realize it was frowned upon by the culture at large until well into adolescence.
- Growing up in a Chinese-American family, I also never received instruction on how to wield a knife and a fork (not to mention their countless cousins). Meat and vegetables were always served precut into bite-sized pieces, to be lifted in a single movement via chopstick.
- When I chowed down on Western food at school, I still didn’t learn table manners. Other kids neither noticed nor cared how I ate. Also, the food was of the variety that’s typically eaten with one’s hands, e.g. burgers, fries, pizza, nuggets. (Imagine my dismay upon learning that in France, even such low-grade items are primly treated with utensils.)
- I almost never had multiple-course meals in the U.S. If something yummy was set in front of me, I ate until I was full. Adjusting to the typical three or four course meal in France was a challenge. I would forget to make room for the cheese course or “petit“ dessert and end up overstuffed like a taxidermy project gone wrong.
Due to the recent holidays and some special events, I’ve been eating quite a bit with Z’s family. This has led to some occasions for self-consciousness on my part.
At one meal, since I have no cooking skills to speak of, I tried to help by setting the table. Z muttered something about the knives, but I didn’t hear him and didn’t ask him to repeat himself. I was fairly confident that – after all this time in France – I knew how to set the table properly. But when everyone sat down at their place, the adults exclaimed at how small their knives were.
It turned out I’d set the table with “kids’ knives.”
Eating with both kids and adults did allow me to see the sort of rigorous training I’d missed in my childhood. When a ten year old posed his elbows on the table, he was immediately reprimanded. Later, when the same boy ducked his head to take a bite, his grandmother cried: C’est la fourchette qui se lève, pas la tête qui se baisse! (It’s the fork which should rise, not the head which descends!)
My own head snapped up so quickly I almost got whiplash.
Then there are the extremely specific situations for which no website could have prepared me. At a recent dinner, two types of cheese were offered on a platter: a soft cheese in a container with a spoon and a hard cheese with a knife next to it.
By some accident of seating, I had to serve myself first. With only two cheeses and two utensils, I didn’t think I could mess anything up.
Of course — I did.
I tried to spoon some of the soft cheese onto my plate, but the cheese simply stuck to the spoon. At that point, I had two choices:
- Use the communal knife for the hard cheese to scrape the soft cheese off the spoon, thus contaminating the knife for the hard cheese with the particles of the soft cheese.
- Use my personal knife to scrape the soft cheese off the spoon, thus contaminating the spoon with some of the food particles that were still on my knife from the previous course.
Believing it was the lesser of two evils, I chose the first option.
Naturally, everyone else exercised option two.
As it turns out, Z’s the kind of guy who eats hot chocolate powder with a spoon, so he wasn’t completely repulsed by my apparent lack of sophistication on that early date. I’ve largely adapted to French table manners by now, but – after popping in a movie and opening a box of pizza – I still smile when Z reaches for his fork and knife while I simply wiggle my fingers.