Friday, June 1, 2018

Etiquette Then, and Occasionally Now


      Do you love old books? I do too. And by old, I mean anything written before Woodstock. I’ve recently become the happy owner of a bunch of really wonderful old volumes to add to my collection, thanks to the generosity of a neighbor wanting to get rid of them. I can’t think why. Happily, he really didn’t seem to mind my digging through his garbage to get them.

      Some of those books were just great. My favorite “donation” from my neighbor is an etiquette book from l934 (actually older than I am! By four years!) and was written by Ms. Lillian Eichler.

      Now etiquette and I, we’ve had a sort of long and strained relationship over the decades. It’s not that I disapprove of the practice. It’s just that I sometimes forget the myriad and complicated rules, such as “do not EVER blow on food that is too hot.” Oh yeah? One should just burn out the insides of one’s mouth instead? Well, that rule was probably made for crass people who blast on a full soup spoon and splatter their dinner partner’s eye glasses. OK, I’ll agree with that one.

I’ve certainly tried in my life to practice etiquette; for example, when I find myself at a fancy dinner with a fishbone stuck in my mouth, I wouldn’t dream of hocking it out onto my plate. No, really, I would never be that crude; what I’d do is to delicately put my napkin to my mouth and hock it into that and then throw the napkin to the floor under the table.

       When I became 13 I was given Emily Post’s book of etiquette as a birthday gift. It was some sort of rite of passage I think. What’s with that? I mean even back then what normal child wanted that for a gift? And hey, how come boys were never gifted with that book?

Well anyway, maybe it wasn’t even Emily Post’s book. Maybe it was Amy Vanderbilt’s, another bastionette of mannerliness.
      I had an Uncle Bill who told me he used to date Amy V. Fortunately they did not marry, (for her, that is) but as I think back on Bill, a man who elevated the gauchest of gaucheries into an artform, I recollect his etiquette skills were sorely wanting. Bill could be a little on the coarse side. No. A lot. The man could blister the skin off sheet steel in a couple of small choice sentences. Amy made a wise choice; if she’d married mon oncle, she’d positively never have been asked back to the better homes after their maiden appearance. I truly suspect her short relationship with dear old Uncle was the catalyst that caused her to write her book of etiquette in the first place.

      But anyway, after my 13th birthday, people kept giving me even more books of etiquette. Maybe they thought the books just being near me might by osmosis make me become a lady. Perhaps they thought I actually needed a little help along the lines of proper behavior. Absurd, of course. Perhaps they thought I’d actually read them.

      Well, I did. Parts. And honestly, those books were just invaluable to me every single time I had to meet a queen or attend a state dinner. And the book came in pretty handy, too, especially when it came to those thorny issues about whether to keep one’s gloves on when plucking petits four from a butler held tray. (Don’t.)

This l934 book of etiquette by Ms. Eichler is just so fun to read. I mean, for example, did you know that a person of real quality never eats a peeled banana with one’s fingers? Certainly not. Knife and fork. Plate too. And (this is a direct quote,) “there are few things unsightlier than seeing someone pick up a stalk of asparagus dripping with butter, hold it suspended in the air, and suck it into the mouth.” (Oh, I couldn’t agree more.) Ms. Eichler goes on to lament that “yet we still see people with otherwise faultless table conduct do just that very thing.” Shocking.

       And please, will you drinkers of wine kindly stop wrapping all your fingers around the wineglass? Put on as few as you can and be sure to keep the pinky finger up, slightly bent. I mean really!

       And can we talk here about some other dining issues? Please, Ms. Eichler begs, do not cut your salad with a knife. Use the side of your salad fork. (That’s why they have that one overgrown tine on one side. Don’t you know anything??) And about those finger bowls; do NOT splash in them. Dip only your fingertips into those bowls of lemon-scented water (do not even think of drinking it no matter how parched) and pat them gently dry--no rubbing--on your napkin. And if you want to be certain everyone knows your breeding may be somewhat less than blue-blooded, then forget to wipe your mouth before you take that sip of water, leaving “disgusting, greasy scallop marks on the lip of the goblet.” We’re talkin’ ugh!

       Etiquette was no easy thing in l934. Alas, today in a lot of ways it’s long gone. But I still have all those gift books of etiquette stacked around here somewhere. One day maybe I’ll even ----nah.

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