I’ve been thinking a great deal since I posted ten days ago on the subject of picky eaters and why they made me peevish.
One thing I have been thinking about is the fact that I had no idea that the topic was going to raise so many people’s blood pressure in so many different directions. I really didn’t think it was that hot of a topic when I took it up. It turns out that I was wrong on that score. Nor did I realize how many folks had opinions on the issue; I had simply been prompted to write because Amy’s post had gotten me thinking. It turns out that if you read responses to Amy’s post, and mine, and to posts inspired by our two posts, you can see that -lots- of people have opinions on the issue of picky eaters. This is obviously a subject that has a lot of people thinking and talking.
The one thing I have been thinking the most about since then was that it isn’t really what people eat or don’t eat that bothers me. Personal food choices are just that–personal, and quite intimately so at that. Each individual has the right to choose what substances to put into their own bodies within reason–no cannibalism, please–and it is not for me to say to someone else that they are wrong for not eating something that I enjoy. In fact, when it comes to dietary choices, in general, I am very easy-going. I have friends who are Muslim, friends who are vegetarians and friends who follow the Atkins diet. I also am friends with people who are lactose intolerant, who have celiac disease, and who have various food allergies.
And I have managed to cook for all of these people, in varying combinations, over the years without making myself or anyone else crazy.
So, why do I state that I disloke picky eaters?
Well, I realized that it wasn’t what people did or did not eat that bothered me, nor was it that they had food preferences that were different than my own. It wasn’t even that some folks had what I consider to be irrational reasons for their food dislikes that bothered me–one could argue that religious prohibitions are irrational in the extreme, yet, I absolute hold religious dietary preferences sacrosanct and will not violate them when I am serving guests for whom they are a chosen expression of spiritual belief and practice.
It isn’t what people eat or don’t eat that gets to me–it is how they go about expressing their choices.
What it comes down to is this: I don’t dislike picky people–I hate rude bastards.
And that is how I realized that the crux of the matter wasn’t food preferences–it was manners.
There are ways to express one’s food preferences in a polite fashion and then there are ways to do it in a rude, obnoxious and childish fashion.
If you express your food preferences politely, you are welcome at my table any time. If you are rude and obnoxious, not only are you not welcome at my table, I will not go out to eat with you, either, because I cannot abide people who treat servers and bartenders as if they were stupid, out to get them or inhuman automatons who are there to bow and scrape and cater to a selfish twit’s every childish whim.
You see, I have worked in food service, and so I have seen how horrible people can be to those in the industry. In fact, if restaurant guests and catering clients were all model citizens with good manners, The Food Whore wouldn’t have as many funny stories, nor would she drink as many lemondrops as she does. (But, one could argue, without her funny stories, the world would be a more boring place–and that is true. In fact, the reason that most rude people I have encountered yet live and breathe is that I learned long ago to laugh at them.)
So, I thought about it and decided that I should write a little primer on manners relating to food, in order to help those confused by the issue get on a little better with the rest of the world. Not that I think that my readers are in any way unmannerly, because they are all so super and wonderful. No, I don’t expect that anyone who comes here regularly will have need of this primer, however, they may know someone who needs enlightened. In such a case, you can email the url to this post to them with no explanation, or print out the primer and leave it on their desk, in their lunchbox or tape it to their foreheads. Whatever works.
This is not a comprehensive list, because I am no Judith Martin, and thus am not really an authority. But this list is just a handful of things that I think are pretty important that might help dinner guests, hosts, servers, customers and family members get along at the table just a little bit better.
Rule Number One of Barbara’s Table Manners is simple–within reason, eat what you are offered, and do so graciously, even if it tastes like ass. This is the big rule that was drummed into my head from early childhood on: if you are offered food in someone else’s home, it is rude to turn it down. It is also rude to explain how you don’t eat whatever it is that is being served to you, unless you have a damned good reason to do so, (like “God will hate me if I eat pork”) and even then, you should try to avoid saying no to your host. If it is something you don’t normally care for, take as small a portion as possible, and eat it, and smile, even if it tastes bad–some might say, especially if it tastes bad.
And after you have eaten it, you praise the cook and thank them vociferously.
Because when someone cooks something for you, it is an expression of love and fellowship, and such an expression should never be spurned, because that is akin to spitting in someone’s face. Bringing people together at the table to share food is a sacred act, and is meant to create bonds of friendship and community among human beings. To refuse food is tantamount to refusing the friendship of the host and the cook, and in some countries and cultures, this is a dire offense. To accept an invitation to dine, and then refuse to eat what is presented to you as a guest by the host is an even worse offense.
My Grandma always told me that when you serve food to a guest, it is always the best that you can give–and that meant that when you went to someone else’s table, what they served was the best that -they- could offer. Not every person has the means to present a five course meal, but even if they are poor, whatever they put before a guest is the best that their hearth and hands can offer, and it should never be looked down upon, ridiculed or refused. It should be eaten graciously, and many thanks should be given for it.
To be a good guest, one should therefore be humble.
Barbara’s Second Rule is a corollary to the first rule: in order to be a good host, make every effort to know what your guests do and do not like and can and cannot eat; in order to be a good guest, make your dietary needs known to your host ahead of time politely and remember that there is a difference between what you cannot eat and what you will not eat. A good guest should understand that his host is under no obligation to please his palate so long as she does not serve food which will cause her guests bodily harm or death. A good host should do his utmost to provide for the comfort of his guests, while a good guest will do her utmost to not be an undo burden to the host.
For both hosts and guests, this means that discreet inquiries, done privately, on the subject of dietary needs are a must for successful dinner parties.
Guests should also strive not to be an undue burden on the host by not making unreasonable requests. If one is a Muslim on the Atkins diet, and is genuinely allergic to a number of foods such as milk and almonds, one should then also not give the host a list of foods that one simply does not like. Stick with what is a genuine problem, and leave the rest be.
For hosts, I say this: if you have vegetarians dining with you, please do not cook vegetables with meat and call them vegetables. It is not cute, clever or compassionate to do so. It is rude. Do not secretly put pork in the green beans and then “forget” to tell your Muslim guest. And for goodness sake, treat food allergies as serious health problems because they can be deadly. You don’t want to kill anyone do you? I didn’t think so. (Do you really want to have someone come to your door in the middle of a dinner party, and when you open it, you find it is the Grim Reaper? If you think it would be fun, please view Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and see that while it can be funny, it really puts a damper on the evening’s entertainment.)
Barbara’s Third Rule is a corollary of the First and Second Rules: please do not make ugly faces, icky noises or derisive comments about other people’s food. Whether it is served to you, or is on someone else’s plate, if you don’t care for it, Keep It To Yourself! No one wants to hear you make gagging sounds if they are eating meat and you are a vegetarian, nor do vegarians want to hear you go on about how terrible tofu is. If you don’t like it and you aren’t eating it, leave the person or persons who are eating it alone to eat it in peace for goodness sake. Else you risk never being asked out to eat again.
Rule Number Four is not related necessarily to the other three rules, but it is very important nonetheless. When one is out at a restaurant, please treat your servers as human beings, because that is bloody well what they are. They are not there to be your personal emotional punching bags. They work hard doing a physically, emotionally and mentally demanding job in order to make a living wage, so please don’t make their life worse by acting like an arrogant ass with a sense of entitlement.
And while you are at it, here is a thought: learn the the difference between bad service (an inattentive, surly server who never brings water or remembers what you asked for), a very busy night when the restaurant is filled with loud tables and the waiters are harried, (the service is slow, but the waiter is apologetic, never forgets your requests, and is running around like a chicken with his head cut off, but still getting everything done), and cases where the server is not at fault, but the kitchen is (a steak is medium rare instead of medium well, but the server takes it right back to fix it with an apology and a smile.) Once you have figured out what good service and bad service are, tip accordingly, and never, ever stiff a server unless they are truly out of line with your party.
And never ever say some stupid crap like, “The restaurant should pay the servers a living wage so that I don’t have to tip,” and then use that as an excuse not to leave a tip, because that is a crass bullshit excuse to just be a tightwad. If you go out with me and say such a thing, guess what? I won’t go out with you again. End of story.
There are lots of other little rules that could be added here–and I welcome folks to leave their own musings on manners here in the comments section. Afterwards, perhaps we will collate them into a grand listing of table manners for the twenty-first century. We can keep adding to the big listing as situations arise and warrent inclusion.
Oh, and one more thing–remember this: manners are not just for guests, hosts, company and restaurants. They apply to everyday home meals, too. In fact, I would say it is just as important to treat your family and intimate friends with great courtesy and manners as it is to treat strangers and guests, because manners make life go more smoothly. Families have enough stress heaped upon them from living in close quarters day and in and day out; it never hurts, and in fact helps to alleviate stress if we all just treat each other with a bit of mannerly kindness on a daily basis.
Manners matter, every day, and in every way.
So–now that you know what I care about when it comes to table manners, what do -you- care about most?
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