Delicacy of manner at table stamps both man and woman, for one can, at a glance, discern whether a person has been trained to eat well—i.e. to hold the knife and fork properly, to eat without the slightest sound of the lips, to drink quietly, to use the napkin rightly, to make no noise with any of the implements of the table, and last, but not least, to eat slowly and masticate the food thoroughly. All these points should be most carefully taught to children, and then they will always feel at their ease at the grandest tables in the land. There is no position where the innate refinement of a person is more fully exhibited than at the table, and nowhere that those who have not been trained in table etiquette feel more keenly their deficiencies. The knife should never be used to carry food to the mouth, but only to cut it up into small mouthfuls; then place it upon the plate at one side, and take the fork in the right hand, and eat all the food with it. When both have been used finally, they should be laid diagonally across the plate, with both handles toward the right hand; this is understood by well-trained waiters to be the signal for removing them, together with the plate.
Be careful to keep the mouth shut closely while masticating the food. It is the opening of the lips which causes the smacking which seems very disgusting. Chew your food well, but do it silently, and be careful to take small mouthfuls. The knife can be used to cut the meat finely, as large pieces of meat are not healthful, and appear very indelicate. At many tables, two, three or more knives and forks are placed on the table, the knives at the right hand of the plate, the forks at the left,—a knife and a fork for each course, so that there need be no replacing of them after the breakfast and dinner is served. The smaller ones, which are for game, dessert, or for hot cakes at breakfast, can be tucked under the edges of the plate, and the large ones, for the meat and vegetables, are placed outside of them. Be very careful not to clatter your knives and forks upon your plates, but use them without noise. When passing the plate for a second helping, lay them together at one side of the plate, with handles to the right. When you are helped to anything, do not wait until the rest of the company are provided, as it is not considered good breeding. Soup is always served for the first course, and it should be eaten with dessert spoons, and taken from the sides, not the tips, of them, without any sound of the lips, and not sucked into the mouth audibly from the ends of the spoon. Bread should not be broken into soup or gravy. Never ask to be helped to soup a second time. The hostess may ask you to take a second plate, but you will politely decline. Fish chowder, which is served in soup plates, is said to be an exception which proves this rule, and when eating of that it is correct to take a second plateful if desired.
Another generally neglected obligation is that of spreading butter on one's bread as it lies in one's plate, or but slightly lifted at one end of the plate; it is very frequently buttered in the air, bitten in gouges, and still held in the face and eyes of the table with the marks of the teeth on it; This is certainly not altogether pleasant, and it is better to cut it, a bit at a time, after buttering it, and put piece by piece in the mouth with one's finger and thumb. Never help yourself to butter, or any other food with your own knife or fork. It is not considered good taste to mix food on the same plate. Salt must be left on the side of the plate and never on the tablecloth.
Let us mention a few things concerning the eating of which there is sometimes doubt. A cream-cake and anything of similar nature should be eaten with knife and fork, never bitten. Asparagus—which should be always served on bread or toast so as to absorb superfluous moisture—may be taken from the finger and thumb; if it is fit to be set before you the whole of it may be eaten. Pastry should be broken and eaten with a fork, never cut with a knife. Raw oysters should be eaten with a fork, also fish. Peas and beans, as we all know, require the fork only; however food that cannot be held with a fork should be eaten with a spoon. Potatoes, if mashed, should be mashed with the fork. Green corn should be eaten from the cob; but it must be held with a single hand.
Celery, cresses, olives, radishes, and relishes of that kind are, of course, to be eaten with the fingers; the salt should be laid upon one's plate, not upon the cloth. Fish is to be eaten with the fork, without the assistance of the knife; a bit of bread in the left hand sometimes helps one to master a refractory morsel. Fresh fruit should be eaten with a silver-bladed knife, especially pears, apples, etc.
Berries, of course, are to be eaten with a spoon. In England they are served with their hulls on, and three or four are considered an ample quantity. But then in England they are many times the size of ours; there they take the big berry by the stem, dip into powdered sugar, and eat it as we do the turnip radish. It is not proper to drink with a spoon in the cup; nor should one, by-the-way, ever quite drain a cup or glass.
Don't, when you drink, elevate your glass as if you were going to stand it inverted on your nose. Bring the glass perpendicularly to the lips, and then lift it to a slight angle. Do this easily.
Drink sparingly while eating. It is far better for the digestion not to drink tea or coffee until the meal is finished. Drink gently, and do not pour it down your throat like water turned out of a pitcher.
When seating yourself at the table, unfold your napkin and lay it across your lap in such a manner that it will not slide off upon the floor; a gentleman should place it across his right knee. Do not tuck it into your neck like a child's bib. For an old person, however, it is well to attach the napkin to a napkin hook and slip it into the vest or dress buttonholes, to protect their garments, or sew a broad tape at two places on the napkin, and pass it over the head. When the soup is eaten, wipe the mouth carefully with the napkin, and use it to wipe the hands after meals. Finger bowls are not a general institution, and yet they seem to be quite as needful as the napkin, for the fingers are also liable to become a little soiled in eating. They can be had quite cheaply, and should be half-filled with water, and placed upon the side table or butler's tray, with the dessert, bread and cheese, etc. They are passed to each person half filled with water, placed on a parti-colored napkin with a dessert plate underneath, when the dessert is placed upon the table. A leaf or two of sweet verbena, an orange flower, or a small slice of lemon, is usually put into each bowl to rub upon the fingers. The slice of lemon is most commonly used. The finger tips are slightly dipped into the bowl, the lemon juice is squeezed upon them, and then they are dried softly upon the napkin. At dinner parties and luncheons they are indispensable.
Spoons are sometimes used with firm puddings, but forks are the better style. A spoon should never be turned over in the mouth.
Ladies have frequently an affected way of holding the knife half-way down its length, as if it were too big for their little hands; but this is as awkward a way as it is weak; the knife should be grasped freely by the handle only, the forefinger being the only one to touch the blade, and that only along the back of the blade at its root, and no further down.
At the conclusion of a course, where they have been used, knife and fork should be laid side by side across the middle of the plate—never crossed; the old custom of crossing them was in obedience to an ancient religious formula. The servant should offer everything at the left of the guest, that the guest may be at liberty to use the right hand. If one has been given a napkin ring, it is necessary to fold one's napkin and use the ring; otherwise the napkin should be left unfolded. One's teeth are not to be picked at table; but if it is impossible to hinder it, it should be done behind the napkin. One may pick a bone at the table, but, as with corn, only one hand is allowed to touch it; yet one can easily get enough from it with knife and fork, which is certainly the more elegant way of doing; and to take her teeth to it gives a lady the look of caring a little too much for the pleasures of the table; one is, however, on no account to suck one's finger after it.
Whenever there is any doubt as to the best way to do a thing, it is wise to follow that which is the most rational, and that will almost invariably be found to be proper etiquette. To be at ease is a great step towards enjoying your own dinner, and making yourself agreeable to the company. There is reason for everything in polite usage; thus the reason why one does not blow a thing to cool it, is not only that it is an inelegant and vulgar action intrinsically, but because it may be offensive to others—cannot help being so, indeed; and it, moreover implies, haste, which, whether from greediness or a desire to get away, is equally objectionable. Everything else may be as easily traced to its origin in the fit and becoming.
If, to conclude, one seats one's self properly at table and takes reason into account, one will do tolerably well. One must not pull one's chair too closely to the table, for the natural result of that is the inability to use one's knife and fork without inconveniencing one's neighbor; the elbows are to be held well in and close to one's side, which cannot be done if the chair is too near the board. One must not lie or lean along the table, nor rest one's arms upon it. Nor is one to touch any of the dishes; if a member of the family, one can exercise all the duties of hospitality through servants, and wherever there are servants, neither family nor guests are to pass or help from any dish. Finally, when rising from your chair leave it where it stands.