This tip will save you from the embarrassment of grabbing the wrong bread plate (or wine glass) at a formal party.
A friend of mine told me this story about one of the first formal parties he attended. It was one of those kinds of affairs where someone pulled out all the stops. And despite all the preparation and reading, he had no idea what to do.
“Suddenly, I had performance anxiety,” he laughs.
“There was every imaginable utensil, plate, glass and other things I’ve never seen set on the table,” he said. “I was confused, but then I discovered that my neighbor was confused – in fact, I think the whole table was completely at a loss.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“We shared. We made it work,” he laughed. “Even the host thought it was amusing.”
The funny part is, my friend is the maître d’ of a five-star restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA where table rules are the standard for every meal. Beyond plates and utensils, there are practical rules like no elbows on the table, no reaching in front of the person next to you, always say “please” and “thank you,” and so on.
My historian friend tells me that table manners evolved over time since the early Renaissance as a part of the cultural revolution. But how about this as a surprise – table rules probably began in Italy (yay!) and not France. Cultural anthropologists (there’s a title for you) attribute the move toward universal social manners with a book written in 1558 by the poet Giovanni della Casa titled “Galateo.” In it, he describes all kinds of manners, including washing hands before sitting down, the use of hands while eating, and the way of putting food into your mouth.
Today, rules cover a myriad of things, right up to how and when one sits at a formal dinner table if royalty is present. But for your table, it’s the bread plate.
The first tip, from my friend the career Maître d’, is that at a party where nobody is sure whose bread plate is whose (much less, which plate is the bread plate), don’t feel bad. Nobody else is sure either. The person on the other side is just as confused and bewildered as you are.
The second tip, from me – keep your cool and ask questions. Dinner is to be an enjoyable, friendly experience. Nothing good happens if you feel like you’re taking a test.
The third tip is a little trick I picked up a long time ago. Touch your thumb and forefinger together to form a small “d” with your right hand and a little “b” with your left. Now, think of the little “d” on your right hand. It stands for “drink.” Those glasses on your right are yours. The little “b” on left-hand stands for “bread.” That’s YOUR bread plate!
Now you’ll never be confused again.