Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dining Etiquette 101—A La Française

You are in the City of Light and are invited to the home of a French person for a fabulous meal. The various aromas dance to your nose as your tummies wait with anticipation at the prospect of having a home cooked meal—French style.  The water is poured into a glass and after about five minutes
you are critiqued for the atrocious table manners you have.

Excuse me, did I hear her correctly or did I just enter into the French Twilight Zone?

Visions of my my childhood pranced through my mind. Being raised by my mother who not only trained her children well by taking us out to a formal restaurant at least once a week to practice our dining etiquette, not to mention the fact that we practiced proper table manners daily while dining at home, I was utterly stunned by the hostess's playful reprimand. I mean we always had a water goblet and wine glass (albeit filled with milk) along with our individual salt and paper shakers at each place setting at home. My napkin is always nicely laying in my lap along with the hand that is not being used at the moment. I know the rules. So what could she have possibly been talking about? Well, I may be literate in the ways of the American "rules," but here in France, I had to start over.

Putting my hand on my lap was my first French faux pas. One must show their hands on top of the table at all times. I scratched my head at that one, but quickly slipped on my investigative cap and asked why this was the case. There was a debate at the table. One person thought that the reason behind this rule was so that you don’t touch yourself in an inappropriate place while seated at the table. Hmm, it would have never occurred to me do so while in the midst of guests, but hey I was in France. The hostess disagreed, because according to her, one might bring a small weapon and aim it at one of the other dinner companions. Since I am not a fan of any sort of weaponry, I personally was rooting for the “don’t touch yourself in an inappropriate place” theory, but it never was resolved.

So, being in Paris, I decided to play by their rules. I kept my hands above the table. Indeed, this was a humbling experience, not because I was embarrassed for my lacking dining skills, but rather because, after only a short time, my arms began to feel like they might fall off from lack of exercise. I suppose the French people learn this habit at an early age and their arms are accustomed to it, but for this novice, it was not an easy task, by any means.

Thankfully, after each course, it is perfectly acceptable to cross the arms in front of the plate. It may seem like a strange thing to do, but considering how tired my arms were, it was nice to have a small respite.

Continuing on to other parts of the body, the elbows are not allowed on the table either. That, of course, is the same for us. However, at home, "the rules" are changing and the occasional elbow on the table doesn't seem to be such a big deal. In France, it is still a big deal.

Moving on to the cutlery, one must not forget about the fork and knife. At all times during the main course, the left hand carries the fork, held upside down while the right hand carries the knife. We Americans cut with the right hand, put the knife on the side of the plate, then pick up the fork and eat. I have to say, this takes longer than the French way.  So, they may have a point there. Furthermore, don’t cut your food with the fork—ever. That would be against another rule written in the great etiquette handbook.

While we are at it, there should be a mention of how a place setting looks. The plate is centered in front of the guest as it would be at home. Large knife to the right, fork to the left and on the table above the plate, lying horizontally, will rest a spoon or desert fork and possibly a cheese knife. The glass is centered on the table above the place setting, directly behind this bit of silverware.

On this occasion, the meal was homemade pumpkin and cous cous quiche with a green salad on the side. In case you were wondering, it was dee-li-cious.

After the main course, the bread was brought out from the kitchen. While we Americans pig out on bread before the meal, leaving little room for all the good stuff, the French consume their bread after the meal. This probably helps in keeping them so thin.

Placed directly in front of me was the freshly baked bread the French are famous for and it was beckoning me to try it. As I reached out to cut myself a slice, I practically jumped in my seat from the cacophony of voices demanding that I stop. I learned that only the host or hostess may cut the bread. They are in charge of making sure everyone has everything they need. Quite often a knife isn't even used. The bread is just ripped by the force of the hands and that as they say is that.

After slicing the bread, I can then reach for the piece that I would like. Sounds easy enough. Unfortunately, my cultural upbringing got in the way once again when I placed my bread on what looked like the small bread plate. Yikes! That was another mistake. Here is the deal, after the bread is cut for you, you do not place it on the dish that is provided for you. Instead, it goes directly on the table over the left side of your plate. Whoa, that one freaked me out.

So, my bread sat on the table awaiting its companion la fromage. Hooray, the cheese was coming out! This would be my first time eating cheese after the meal and I wondered how much I would actually be able to eat.

Drum roll please, another faux pas is coming. While the guest may not cut the bread, la fromage is another matter all together. Each individual is in charge. I started making long cuts along the edge—but apparently that was a major no-no. Instead, one slices the cheese as you would a round cake, cutting it into triangles from the center and placing that piece of cheese (mind you, not the bread) on to the small plate provided. Ahhh, I blew that one. Then you tear a bite size piece of the bread that is sitting on the table and place it on the plate. After all that work, you can then put a piece of cheese on that bit of bread that is now on the plate so that it can eventually be consumed. Hallelujah, the cheese finally made it into my mouth!

Oh and there are no second chances with the cheese platter either. Take what you want the first time around or lose out altogether. That means you either only have a small taste of each cheese in the hopes that you will be satisfied (or you can at least pretend to be satisfied) or risk taking a chance that you will actually enjoy everything you take, because you better eat everything once it is on your plate—no pushing food to the side of the plates in this country. The reason for this is because during World War II a lot of people went hungry. So, leaving even a small crumb on the dish is considered uncouth.

Whew, after a seemingly never ending pile of mistakes, I made it through the meal in tact with a few laughs and with more information about the culture than when I started. So, grab your pen and paper and take many notes before dining in France with the locals. Remember when in Rome do as the Romans do and the same applies here in Paris. It’s more fun that way.

Bon appetit!

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!