Table Manners for Grown-ups

June 30th, 2010 · 16 Comments · Dinner, Rituals

Last week I was having coffee with a friend and we ran into a dad she knows from her kids’ school. Jenny, she said, This is Tom. He is the best dinner guest.

I learned also that he is a writer. A film professor at a nearby university. But that’s not what stayed with me. When I saw him the next weekend across the farmer’s market the first thing I thought was, There goes that great dinner guest.

Man, I hope people describe me that way. I know people describe my husband that way. I like to think we are invited back to people’s dining rooms and kitchens and patios because every time Andy takes a bite of food that someone has cooked for him he makes a big point of showing of how satisfying it is. It doesn’t even have to be particularly delicious — though he loves good food and when it’s good, the fork will drop and some gutteral sound will be uttered. Even if he’s eating a steak that is about as tender as a piece of cardboard, he’ll express genuine appreciation for what’s on his plate, for the fact that someone has spent time in the kitchen making something for him. The fact that someone planned a menu, went shopping for ingredients, and most likely spent one half of the day straightening up the house and the other half protecting the straightened-up house from being torpedoed by the kids.

When I was editing at Real Simple and Cookie, we’d get a ton of letters from parents asking for help teaching their kids table manners* but the story I really wanted to write was about grown-up table manners, specifically how to behave when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner. In my book it comes down to two basic rules. Rules so basic that they can be easy to forget.

1)  Again, acknowledge the food you are eating. Even if it’s not good. Even if you are at this family’s house every single Sunday and have been for most of your adult life. Where do you buy beluga lentils? Where’d you find this oyster-fennel-hot pepper pilaf recipe? How did you get this sauce to be so good without butter? What is in the dressing on this salad? Man, this brownie is all about that hint of sea salt. I have to say, I don’t think there’s anything stranger than cooking for someone who sits through a whole meal without mentioning the meal in front of him. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you have to be a food writer to feel this way.

2) Acknowledge the event the next day. Give your host a call. A voice-mail is sufficient if no one answers. Send an email. It can be one line. It can be three pages long. The same friend who I was having coffee with sent me the most thoughtful note the morning after we grilled up some yogurt-marinated chicken for her and her husband. “It was so fun to see the set of Dinner: A Love Story,” she wrote. “I felt very backstage and glamorous!” She went on to praise the meal, my family, and even suggest a few ideas for DALS.

It sounds kinda narcissistic — the need to be acknowledged and praised — but it’s not about telling the host how great she is. You don’t have to lie and say the food is the best thing you’ve ever eaten and her family is otherworldly and their house is what you dream about when you fall asleep at night. But a meal is a kind of gift and it’s not cool to forget to say thanks.

*My favorite solution is up in that picture: Add a marble to a glass jar every time the kids make it through a meal without being told to “sit up straight” or “use your fork,” or “use your napkin” or “stop wiping the bacon grease on that perfectly beautiful Petit Bateau dress your aunt just gave you yesterday for crying out loud.”  Or, um, whatever. When the jar is filled, they get to go out to dinner and pick the restaurant.

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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mary Ann // Jun 30, 2010 at 11:16 am

    A nice reminder that works well even if you meet up with other people for a picnic or potluck.

    On a related topic … it sure would be nice if my husband acknowledged the dinner I put in front of him every night. I know he likes my cooking and is more than happy not to have to be in the kitchen himself, but sometimes the daily dinner grind seems to be taken for granted at our house.

    Like the marble idea! I’ll tuck it away for when our daughter is a little older.

  • 2 Amanda // Jun 30, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Manners are very important at our house too. I love the marble idea – we will have to use that.

    My mother, for all her amazing traits, didn’t word things right with me when I was a child and I took the stern warning of “Always say ‘Yes please’” during meals to mean that I had to say “Yes please” to offers of second, third and one time, even fourth helpings of food. She was mortified to learn from one family that I visited that ate four servings of potatoes with gravy (I hate gravy). The parent called to compliment her on my manners as well as my appetite because every time she offered me another helping, I’d meekly say “Yes please.” Kids take everything so literally! (For the record, I still really hate gravy)

  • 3 654carroll // Jun 30, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    i know this is away from the main idea of the post but too compelling to let pass: sea salt in brownies?! essentially my two favorite foods, together! how much salt? (just switch in sel de mer for whatever the recipe calls for?)

  • 4 Caroline // Jun 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I adore your site! As much as I enjoy reading the new recipes and the stories behind them, I get a tad giddy when I see the posts on your dinner conversations and whatever else is consumed at the table besides the delicious looking meals.

  • 5 jenny // Jun 30, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    654 – I totally made that up, but it does sound compelling! I would do exactly what you suggest. And if it’s not enough, you can always sprinkle on some salt when you are eating it. Have you ever spread peanut butter on a brownie?????????? Rich man’s Reeses. The PB definitely must be salted to achieve full effect.

  • 6 Ivy // Jun 30, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    My husband is an amazing cook and we love to feed people (though I’m just prep cook and occasional baker). We’re not formal, you don’t have to dress, don’t have to bring wine, don’t have to do much else other than be sort of on time… but we do have two pet peeves when people are eating at our house:

    1. My husband likes company in the kitchen. He loves to cook but hates to feel like “the help” (who doesn’t?). He likes when guests hang out, have a drink, pull up a chair, and chat with him. And he’s open about asking. If people say “can I help?” he’ll say “no, but come and keep me company.” If everyone is someplace else, I’ll say “let’s go see what he’s up to, no one likes to cook alone.” You’d think with our not so subtle prompting people would get it, but we still have people who insist on trying to drag me away, or deliberately avoid the kitchen. We’re not talking about major parties either, where there are lots of side conversations. We’re talking dinner with another couple, who act like the kitchen is location non grata. Drives us crazy. It’ s literally in the middle of our house, visible from the living room, attached openly to the dining room. It’s hard to actively avoid it, and yet people do.

    2. I like to see the cook thanked. You don’t have to praise every bite, but if someone cooked for you, you should thank them. In fact, every night at dinner, my daughter and I thank my husband (since he does do almost all the cooking) and he thanks us back: “thanks for picking and chopping the herbs” “you made the dressing, thank YOU” or “thank you for helping wash the carrots sweetie.” This is normal behavior for us. Even if the food is bad, you always thank the cook for making it. Even if the help was minimal (my daughter is at an age where help and hinder are very similar). Yet we’ll have relatives who when faced with a succulent loin or delicious soup sit in stony silence — even after we’ve performed our little thank you ritual in front of them.

    I mean it’s not only a need for ego stroking. Food is nourishment far beyond calories and the people who prepare it deserve to be included and appreciated for their efforts.

  • 7 bianca // Jun 30, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Great tips!

    Needless to say I will be passing those along; as I have a few “bad” dinner guests among my group of friends.

  • 8 Jan (Family Bites) // Jun 30, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Great post. I love that your husband is so effusive towards his food and the marble idea…really wonderful.

  • 9 Erin @ Letter Soup // Jun 30, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I love this post, and it’s just in time to remind me to call and thank my brother for dinner last night! Whew, thanks!
    Also, as a former teacher, I’m quite familiar with the fabulous marble jar but hadn’t thought to use it at home. Duh! Great reminders!

  • 10 ann // Jul 1, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Yes, yes, yes to point one. I like to celebrate food, talk about it – eating and ignoring it as mere fuel is not on.

    Unfortunately some of our relatives never ever comment on a meal – by the end of their stay (they live away from us) I am going crazy just waiting for someone to say SOMETHING about my cooking – even “Ann, this is truly terrible” would be welcome. My husband is then instructed to go overboard with feedback for at least the next week to compensate!

  • 11 IJR // Jul 1, 2010 at 9:08 am

    on target. really nice.

  • 12 JennyAnn // Jul 2, 2010 at 12:32 am

    I just want to mention that it’s important to know what your child is capable of, developmentally, so as not to “set them up” for failure. To expect a 3.5 year old to sit still for an entire meal is unrealistic, and not benevolent (before 4, children do not have impulse control, and therefor can not stop doing the thing that you have told them 50 times to stop doing).
    Also, during periods of disequilibrium, it is important to avoid places that are an emotional “set up” for children- if your child is in disequilibrium, and you know that she/he has a tendancy to tantrum during meals, don’t take her/him to a restaurant. Again, the compassionate goal is having benevolence for what our children are actually capable of, and letting go of expectations that are inappropriate.
    That said, the truest way to teach manners is to model them!
    p.s. my husband thanks me EVERY meal I make, and I make them all!

  • 13 sally // Jul 5, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Eddie has “marble parties” at school! The teacher adds a marble to a jar everyday the kids have behaved well and when the jar is filled they get to wear their pajamas to school and have ice cream. I love it!

  • 14 cc // Jul 14, 2010 at 2:02 am

    Not getting so much as a single comment out of dinner guests used to drive my mother WILD! She is a good cook, a really good cook, and she always made an effort for people. It was not about ego really, it was her complete bafflement that they seemingly did not care whether they were eating cardboard or a succulent veal chop.

    My dh always makes a point of praising some aspect of a meal and is so obviously grateful that someone cooked for him. Which is as it should be.

    I am at mom’s now, and fully enjoying her cooking, which I make sure to tell her.

  • 15 miren // Jan 8, 2011 at 2:59 am

    Am really enjoying your blog! Started reading it 2 days ago and have been reading up on your archive. As you can see, am at July now, and will no doubt be done with 2010 and fully caught up by tomorrow evening!

    Oh if only people had these most basic of manners! Is it too much to ask for you to go beyond yourself and appreciate the time, effort and thought that go into tidying up a space and preparing a meal!? This is obviously a very sore topic for me. Is there any way we can spread your post to reach even more people!?!

    Like I said, sore topic :)

    LOVED the marble idea though, will definitely use that one on my kids!

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