‘A lamb chop is not an hors d’oeu­vre’

TA­BLE MAN­NERS: HOW TO BE­HAVE IN THE MOD­ERN WORLD AND WHY BOTHER By Jeremiah Tower Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, $20, 148 pages, il­lus­trated

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Jeremiah Tower is one of this na­tion’s great restau­ra­teurs of the past half cen­tury, as any­one such as my­self who has been for­tu­nate enough to eat in one of his es­tab­lish­ments well knows. So it is not sur­pris­ing that he brings some of that per­spec­tive to his forth­right recipes for good ta­ble man­ners. But, for the most part, his fo­cus is on you as diner, guest, or host, and how you should act for your own sake and that of oth­ers, for “Ta­ble man­ners are a two-way street.”

Pleas­ingly ap­par­ent in th­ese pages is Mr. Tower’s author­ity, at­trac­tively leav­ened with sup­ple­ness and com­mon sense, ac­knowl­edg­ing change in mores, but em­brac­ing en­dur­ing stan­dards of be­hav­ior, even when dis­cussing self­ies, tex­ting or talk­ing on a cell­phone in com­pany. How ap­pro­pri­ate that one so fa­mil­iar with credit cards de­fined by pre­cious met­als should have amended the Bi­b­li­cal Golden Rule thus: “You are al­ways cor­rect and safe from any em­bar­rass­ing gaffes if you re­mem­ber: do unto oth­ers as they would have you do.” For the aim of so much of the prac­ti­cal ad­vice be­ing dis­pensed here is to put ev­ery­one at their ease in or­der to pro­mote max­i­mum en­joy­ment across the spec­trum of gus­ta­tory ex­pe­ri­ence.

Which is not to say that this is an au­thor re­luc­tant to de­liver a sharp rap across the knuck­les when called for:

“Eat­ing in a taxi is un­der­stand­able only if you are tak­ing one from Jersey to San Fran­cisco. But if you are on a short ride and ab­so­lutely must, keep your break­fast in the bag and eat care­fully over the open­ing of the bag, so the next pas­sen­ger doesn’t slide in over a seat drenched in cof­fee, milk, sugar, and dough­nut de­bris. Tak­ing your trash with you is es­sen­tial.”

And many an air­line pas­sen­ger will bless Mr. Tower for his ad­mo­ni­tion to spare those seated nearby “smelly, messy, spill­able food” like raw gar­lic and con­sid­er­a­tion with bev­er­ages “at even a hint of tur­bu­lence.” On the other hand, his ad­vice for those trav­el­ing on ships is all about en­sur­ing great ser­vice for them­selves.

Read­ers will find huge amounts of in­valu­able ad­vice about ev­ery­thing from ta­ble set­tings to tack­ling hard to eat treats like gi­ant lob­sters or teeny snails. Spar­ing em­bar­rass­ment and awk­ward­ness are hall­marks of his tips, like the ones for cock­tail party eats:

“Don’t serve any­thing that is more than a com­fort­able one-bite or it may end up down the front of a guest. A lamb chop, no mat­ter how petite, is not an hors d’oeu­vre.”

Or: “Never serve food hot enough to burn any­one’s mouth”

Or, treading a fine line re­gard­ing po­lite­ness: “Crab salad is one thing, crab breath an­other. Guests want to eat what they choose, not what they smell on an­other’s breath. Never use in­gre­di­ents that linger, no mat­ter how de­li­cious.”

M.F.K. Fisher was fa­mous for a book ti­tled “With Bold Knife and Fork,” but Mr. Tower’s is bold in us­ing a sharp tongue to dis­pense pre­scrip­tions and pro­scrip­tions.

All types of eti­quette get their turn here, from who pays to how much to tip, and whether still to do so when a ser­vice charge has al­ready been added. When us­ing a mar­row spoon is pre­ten­tious (when this del­i­cacy is al­ready spread on toast) and where nec­es­sary (when it is served still in its bone). And why it is more con­sid­er­ate both to you and your fel­low din­ers to dab sauce onto your oys­ter than put the mol­lusk into the condi­ment.

It seems that few sub­jects are ta­boo for Mr. Tower, from bod­ily func­tions to al­ler­gies. Af­ter all, he is de­scrib­ing peo­ple as they are made and sit­u­a­tions bound to arise. And he is adept at blend­ing tol­er­ance with ab­so­lute pro­hi­bi­tion when called for:

“If the guests start us­ing drugs that are not on the menu or en­ter­tain­ment sched­ule, a firm ‘Please, no,’ is within ev­ery­one’s bounds of best be­hav­ior.” Es­tab­lish­ing a cli­mate of com­fort for all is the ul­ti­mate goal of good man­ners.

At the con­clu­sion of his book, Mr. Tower re­turns to an­swer­ing what lies be­hind that all-im­por­tant sub­ti­tle: “The most im­por­tant thing about man­ners is that they’re not about you. The more you think about those around you and the less you think about your­self, the more likely you are to be­have well. And the bet­ter you be­have, the more likely you are to be in­vited back.”

There is not only the sound prac­ti­cal ad­vice read­ers will have come to ex­pect by now, but, iron­i­cally, here as well as scat­tered through­out the text, as we have seen, plain, di­rect speak­ing that would not be so­cial good man­ners by host or guest. In or­der to pro­duce that uni­formly good ta­ble be­hav­ior, Mr. Tower is not afraid to aban­don man­ners and, in that uniquely pri­vate do­main in­hab­ited solely by au­thor and reader, speak to him sternly, in the man­ner of what used to be called a “Dutch Un­cle.”

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