In my salad days in Manhattan, my friends and I would play a barroom game in which we judged people by their footwear: a sort of reverse fortune telling in which you observed the sartorial selection and made a Gypsy-like pronouncement about who the wearer was. This was the 1990s. An adult male sporting unscuffed Top-Siders with no socks was judged to be a recent grad of Cornell or Duke — possibly Dartmouth — lately arrived on Wall Street, who still kept a poster of Pamela Anderson from “Baywatch” on his wall. A girl who went out after dark in Wellingtons — the archetypal mud-walker that became de rigueur, ca. 1998, as the silhouette of jeans tucking into knee boots began its heady climb — wasn’t actually from Connecticut, but from the Upper East Side, and had spent a semester abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland, where she had attended an Italian-language seminar with Kate Middleton.
Even before reading the above paragraph, regular readers were probably aware that I am an abominably judgmental person. I’m a monster, casting approval and disapproval liberally, like birdseed, to my left and my right.
I’m the worst when it comes to my feelings about good and bad manners, thank-you notes, helping an elder with bags of groceries, saying “hello” when you pass someone on the sidewalk, looking a store clerk in the eyes.
I certainly do silently judge people on the basis of how they hold their cutlery.
Don’t get me wrong, my opinions on table manners aren’t a matter of snobbery, exactly. As far as I’m concerned, a coal miner who holds his fork in his fist and shovels macaroni into his mouth like a load of coke into a furnace might have more refined and gracious manners than the noble Duke of Amalfi, if he is empathetic and considerate of others. But when it comes to the rearing of my own children, I still hold tight tothe curmudgeonly belief that it is important to know how to comport yourself decently, suavely, at any dinner table, wherever life may take you — or at the very least not spoil other people’s appetites.
The Covid Era has played havoc with our collective willingness to put on pants made of anything but stretch synthetic and it has turned us collectively into suppertime slobs.
I, myself, have seriously let down the team here at home.
We began the pandemic on Edwards Lane with family meals, lighted candles on the table, and cloth napkins, but are riding it out — surfing it out, as the waves swell and fall — with dinner on a tray, and tray on chest, food consumed supine on a couch as we zone out to episodes of “One-Punch Man” animé or “All Creatures Great and Small.” Shoulder hunched, chin to the rim of the bowl. At one point in late December, a spy cam would have caught me holding a turkey leg in both hands like Fred Flintstone gnawing a pterodactyl haunch.
On Sunday evening, my poor son underwent a withering boot-camp style dressing-down as he tried to enjoy a plate of meatballs from L&W Market. I was the cruel drill sergeant: Shoulders back! I barked. Don’t slump over your food like that! Fork to mouth, not mouth to bowl! Put your napkin in your lapkin!
Poor soul. My children’s table manners are 100 percent not their fault. I am to blame. I am a Bad Mother.
I used to have really nice table manners.
As a child, up until the year 1984, I held my fork tines-up in the polite American way, passing it — my fork — from my right hand to my left as I transferred my knife the opposite direction — from left to right — and deposited it (the knife) in its place beside my plate, having sliced a perfect forkful of chop.
In the year 1984, sometime between Christmas and Easter, at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, I flipped my fork: I learned to hold it tines-down in the Continental manner. I stopped passing my fork from right to left and back again — that elegant Yankee elaboration of table manners
— but let it hover gently over my plate as foreigners did, ready to prod a parsleyed potato this a-way and that.
By the year 2000 I was working at Vogue and traveling a lot, and I had become highly sensitized to the finer nuances of cutlery. When I was visiting England, or eating with the English, I adopted a more subtly sophisticated manner: letting the fork rest lightly in the left hand, but keeping the tines up. This, I felt, evidenced a very particular intercontinental finesse. I was really quite an expert when it came to different attitudes of holding a fork.
It is going to require considerable strength to pull ourselves together, post-Covid, when we return to common life, to public life. We’ve let our lazy inner id take the wheel, and there comes a reckoning.
This might be a good moment to tell you about the time I sat next to one of Donald J. Trump’s siblings at a birthday dinner for the divine crooner Tony Bennett beside the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You have never seen anyone with worse table manners. And it wasn’t just the fork. Forget the fork. It was the inappropriate table talk.
This really is “juicy goss,” as the kids say, my Trump-sibling-in-the-Temple-of-Dendur story that happened to me once, but I can’t tell it here in print. Bad form. Next summer, if and when we’re finally free to invite one another on dinner dates and to dinner parties — changing out of the yoga pants, buying decorative tins of Louis Sherry chocolates as hostess gifts — please invite me over. I’m eager to dine out again on this one.