If I put my elbows on the table or talked with my mouth full or held my silverware incorrectly, Mama would say, "Ginna Lee, Manners the Butler is under the table." Immediately, I would correct whatever faux pas I had just committed because, quite frankly, I was scared to death of the little invisible man.
But the bottom line was this: I learned perfect table manners. And when I would go to spend the night with a friend or go out to dine with another family, my mother never had to worry that I would embarrass myself or my hosts at the table.
My own children have also grown up with Manners the Butler. They learned at an early age to put their napkins in their laps, to not touch their food until everyone had been seated at the table and served, and to remove any caps or hats before they sat down to eat.
I was reminded of Mr. Manners last week when I got an email from a loyal reader who asked if I might write a story about good table manners because she's tired of going out to eat and seeing educated people eat like pigs (my words there, not hers).
So I did a little research using two etiquette books and the Internet and I'd like to share some of that with you now. Most of these guidelines I knew, but a few were new to me. These "rules" are as much about having respect for oneself as they are about being considerate of others around you.
* Remove any electronic devices or turn them off before sitting down at the table. If you are a male and you're wearing a hat, take it off. This includes baseball caps.
* After you sit down, put your napkin on your lap. Napkins should never be tucked in or tied around the neck, except in the case of very small children.
* If you are a guest, wait for everyone to be served and for the host to take the first bite before starting on your own meal. If you are presiding at your own table, you can start to eat and guests will follow.
* When it comes to silverware etiquette, the basic rule of thumb is to start from the outside and work in. If there are two forks on your left, use the outermost fork for the appetizer or salad, then the inner fork for the entrampée.
* Never eat with your elbows on the table and don't hunch over your plate. Instead, keep your wrists or forearms resting lightly on the table's edge and bring the food up to your mouth, not your mouth down to your food, as you sit straight and tall. Your feet should be placed squarely on the floor, not stretched out or wrapped around the chair legs.
* How you eat is really the basis of all etiquette guidelines. Load up the fork or spoon about 2/3 full so you don't put too much in your mouth. Chew with your mouth closed and don't smack or slurp. Chew and swallow before taking another bite and take it slow. Never take two bites from the same forkful or two sips from the same spoonful. If you discover something in the bite that is inedible, such as an olive pit, discreetly remove it with your fork if it went in on a fork or a spoon if it went in on a spoon and put it back on your plate.
* In the American style of dining, meat is anchored with the fork, tines down in the left hand and cut with the knife in the right hand. The knife is then placed on the upper right hand side of the plate, with the cutting edge of the knife facing the center of the plate. The fork is switched to the right hand and the food is conveyed to the mouth with the fork, tines up. (If you're left-handed, do this in reverse.)
* Bread and rolls should always be broken in half or in even smaller pieces, before they are buttered and eaten. Small biscuits and bite-size sandwiches should not be broken. Small muffins should be split horizontally.
* Salad should not be cut with a knife, but broken with the side of the fork. If you're presented with a wedge of iceberg lettuce, you may resort to a knife.
* An implement that has been used by one person should never be used to take food from any dish which contains food for others.
* No food is ever put directly into the mouth from the platter without being put down first on a plate. For example, a small cake or sandwich should be set down on the plate first and then taken up to be eaten.
* Never use your fingers to push food onto a fork.
* When you are finished with a utensil, set it on the plate to be cleared. Place the utensils across the middle so they won't fall off when the plate is lifted up. Put soup spoons on the soup bowl's saucer when finished. Never, even for a moment, should a spoon be left sticking up out of a cup or bowl.