Every Day with Rachael Ray

Modern Manners

She’s no Miss Manners, but for writer Lavinia Spalding, etiquette rules.

I was raised with only three dining rules: Try everything once, say “please” and “thank you,” and don’t answer the phone or discuss boys during dinner (my father’s rule, instituted when I hit my teens). Consequently, I’ve spent about half my life with my elbows on the table, and I’m OK with this. Still, there are edicts I’ve come to swear by, thanks to my time in the food service trenches.

I landed my first job in high school at a burger joint called Bun Huggers. Then came greasy spoons, noodle bars and a swank celeb hot spot. Along the way, I’ve seen things that would make Emily Post turn in her grave, from teeth picked with knives to ice cubes tossed in dates’ cleavages. But my biggest lessons in manners that matter came from the family-style Thanksgiving dinner I used to serve at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, UT.

Take, for instance, the Year of the Crantastrophe.The first sign anything was amiss was a hubbub at a far table. Wine glass down! I thought as I went to investigate. But on arrival, I found that a guest had in fact emptied an entire family-size bowl of cranberry sauce onto his plate. Then, with his tablemates looking on in disbelief, he speed-scarfed his haul (plus the underlying mountain of turkey and sides), patted his belly and said, “What’s for dessert?” Lesson learned: Enthusiasm’s great, but c’mon—you gotta share.

Next was the Early Bird Special: the year that half the patrons showed up so early, we were still polishing silver. Smiling thinly through our stress, we launched into hyperdrive. “Hey, no rush,” said the ringleader, making a beeline for our wine collection. And, in that moment, a new tradition was born: pre-dinner cider and bonfire outside! Lesson learned: Just be on time.

Finally, there was the Finger Food Epiphany, involving a lovely, renowned restaurateur who sat in my section and proceeded to eat her whole salad—slowly, deliberately, leaf by vinaigrettes leaf—with her fingers. Good God, no! I thought, panicking that we’d forgotten her fork. We hadn’t: As I’ve since learned, all kinds of chefs eat this way. And besides, she was so absorbed in her enjoyment, the people around her couldn’t help but be, too. Lesson learned: Manners vary with community and context. Don’t leap to judgment.

All of which is to say, good old-fashioned decency is still what matters most. Everything else is gravy.

The traveler’s-eye view of men and women is not satisfying. A man might spend his entire life in trains and restaurants and know nothing of humanity at the end. To know, one must be an actor as well as a spectator.” –Aldous Huxley