Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, November 7, 2016
Manners are a fickle thing, aren’t they?
It seems like only yesterday that folks around the known universe often tucked their napkins into their shirts during mealtimes. Now, however, that practice seems to be rare or even forgotten, a vestige of an all-too-gauche era during which people dried their hands on their pants and wiped their noses on their sleeves.
OK, I’ve been known to dry my hands on my pants after washing them—a technique my father taught me to apply when paper towels are absent—but I don’t make a habit of it … at least, not in spots that could serve as the subject of front-page news stories on the disintegration of human society. You get what I mean, though, right? Somehow, diners are being uncouth less.
Perhaps that’s too sweeping a generalization. There are plenty of gourmands (and gourmets), I’m sure, who, after sitting down at their tables, pick up their napkins, stuff them in the necks of their button-downs and wait for the food to tumble off them like culinary waterfalls. Yet it seems this breed has become few and far between, less frequently observed at restaurants than, say, baked Alaska or crêpes Suzette. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I’m just wondering what the heck happened that they became so scarce. Have we really grown up so much as an eating culture that we’ve forgotten our baser instincts, left behind in the same rubble that buries the deep, primal love for dinner theater and chicken à la King?
Next thing you know, we’ll be decrying tuna casserole as an affront to epicurean tastes. So much for childhood memories, huh?
I’ll tell you, though: We’ve certainly matured as a food-loving species. And our sensibilities have extended to the dining room, where the spirit of civilization makes itself known more than anywhere else. If such uncouth behavior isn’t overtly shunned, it’s definitely not encouraged by the industry. The practice has, for better or worse, been rejected by hipsters, the younger generation, who all know better than that owing to their cosmopolitan upbringing. Gentility has become the new benchmark. Eating now demands a side of politesse with its entrées.
For what it’s worth, I welcome this new era with cautious optimism. The idea that diners today are more well-informed about the social graces than their forebears is cause for celebration, but it also suggests a smugness that may have infiltrated our concept of gustatory enjoyment—the notion that we’ve evolved to a heightened point of behavior insinuates that we don’t have any further to go … that we can rest on our tableside laurels.
In my humble opinion, however, we’ve only reached the tip of the île flottante.
See, just because one bad habit is disappearing doesn’t mean it won’t be replaced by another. One can still observe folks pushing nibbles onto their forks with knives or scraping their plates until every last vestige of sauce is swallowed. We’re not out of the gastronomic woods yet.
What needs to happen next on the part of customers is a renewed interest in table manners and their employment. There’s a reason such standards were developed: In part, they help convey our strengths as a society—that we care not only about our edibles, but also about the process by which they’re consumed. By showcasing how refined we are while eating, we display our respect for our food and those surrounding us. And it makes for better mealtimes, as well as better lives.
Will the holdout napkin-tuckers see the truth in this regard? At this juncture, it’s hard to say. We’re unquestionably heading in the right direction, though. The absence, in general, of such behavior at New York City eateries speaks to that.
Whether it speaks to the opening of a new dining chapter is another story. Suffice it to say, I’m keeping my elbows off the table in anticipation.
Just don’t expect me to chew with my mouth closed, too.