A bright young fellow told the anecdote at a dinner party. I borrow it for the occasion.
A self-making man in process of manufacture, dined with a more sophisticated friend at a city restaurant. When the soup was brought on, the S. M. M. prepared for business by laying a slice of bread on the cloth, and troweling it with butter. His host, who had been requested by the guest to "coach him a little in city ways," said mildly:
"That isn't quite the thing, old man! Break off a bit of bread and butter it, as you wish to eat it."
"All right!" said the other, "I want to know about the latest touches."
His next solecism was to fish up a bit of meat from the dish with his own fork, and his friend again set him right. Blunder No, 3 was putting his knife into his mouth; No. 4 was cutting up his salad; No. 5, sandwiching cheese between two crackers and crunching it noisily; No. 6 was creaming black coffee.
"I say!" he broke in at this point, still good-humoredly, "what do you call all these fool rules you've been telling me? I s'pose a fellow ought to know something about them. But they come hard, at first."
"I suppose," said the mentor, somewhat nonplussed, "that they may all be classed under the head of table etiquette."
"Et-er-ket!" slowly and thoughtfully. "Well, I say, old fellow - there ain't many that has got on to it yet - is there?"
Resisting the temptation to dwell upon the many who never "get on to it," let us look for the commonsensible basis of certain minor social usages which are accepted as matters of course by well-bred people, and contemned by the boorish and ignorant as "fool rules" that hamper personal liberty.
Few conventionalities are arbitrary. Most of them are reasonable, many so just as to be binding upon the lovers of decency and order, not to say healthfulness.
To carry food to the mouth with the knife-blade is awkward, and if the knife have an edge, unsafe. If I were at the point of death, I should laugh and blush together at the memory of the commotion excited in a London family hotel last year by the exclamation of an American tourist who jumped up from the dinner-table and clapped his napkin to his mouth with - "Waiter! Never put a sharp knife at my place again! I have cut my mouth badly! It might have done serious harm!"
The rule against touching fish with a knife dates back to a time when steel knives were in general use. Steel imparts an unpleasant taste to the more delicate kinds of cooked fish. Hence, the custom of leaving the knife beside the plate, and using the fork alone during the fish course.
A like rule obtains with regard to salads. To cut is to bruise the tender esculents, and to injure the flavor. The leaves of lettuce should be torn apart in preparing it for the table, with as little handling as possible, and eaten as soon as the salad is dressed. Other salads - as beets, celery, etc., are cut up and ready for eating when sent to table. To use the knife upon them is a reflection upon cook and host.
To butter a whole slice of bread at once - especially when it is laid on the table in order to do it - is slovenly, wasteful and awkward. If eaten as a whole, one must gnaw or nibble at it, and to cut it after it is buttered is neither neat nor convenient. The fashion of finger-bowl and napkin would seem to commend itself to everybody as eminently cleanly and comfortable. Yet there are still well-to-do people who sneer at the idea of "doing one's washing at the table."
The by-law obeyed by the transient guest who lays his napkin carelessly on the table when the meal is over, instead of folding it, is easily understood. To fold it implies that it may be used again before it is washed.
"Mr. Blank has no napkin, James!" said a hostess of the nouveau riche order, to her butler.
"I beg pardon!" interposed the guest, lifting a corner of the napkin from his knee that she might see her mistake. "I have one."
"Ah!" with an apologetic smile. "I saw that you did not have it on!"
To tuck the napkin into the collar, or pin it around the neck before attacking one's food may be a wise precaution if one has never learned to convey it to the mouth without dropping or dripping it. Gentlemen are supposed to have put away bibs with other childish things. The suggestion of putting a napkin "on" is not agreeable. The place for the useful bit of fine linen is on the knee or lap, out of sight of fellow-eaters.
Black coffee in after-dinner coffee cups is a digestive agent - a gastronomic expletive - not a beverage. To cream it is to pervert its meaning, and to defeat the end for which it is served. It is well known that the addition of cream or milk to coffee causes a chemical change in both ingredients. To some stomachs creamed coffee, or cafe au lait, is poisonous. Clear black coffee is a tonic, and agrees with everybody.
To toss off a glass of water as soon as one sits down to a meal is an infringement of table-etiquette. Those who recognize the fact do not always bethink themselves of the reason lying back of the "fool rule." To fill the stomach with iced water is to check the process of digestion temporarily. To add to the water a plateful of hot soup is to disgust the diaphragm by a load of lukewarm liquid, very like the dish-water in the pan of an untidy scullion.
I might go on, ad infinitum, multiplying instances of what are sneered at by the untaught and unthinking slaves of their own prejudices as foolish and useless limitations to a man's right to eat, drink and make merry after his own fashion. Which - I may observe - is usually the fashion of the beasts that perish.
Enough has been said to give credit to the sagacity and humanity of those who set the pace for our better classes - better in so far as they conserve the best interests of the race, and lend countenance to all that is kindly, wholesome and comely.