Zamboni Lady: What Happens at the Table…

DISCLAIMER: The Zamboni Lady is not a doctor, nor does she play one on TV.  She is, simply, a busybody who wants to know everyone else’s business.  The advice, while well-meant, is not meant to substitute for legal advice or protection, indicate a definitive way to live one’s life, or in any way imply that you should take her advice any more seriously than you would the advice of the bestie of your bestie, given out over a long and tear-soaked evening of nachos and margaritas.


Dear Zamboni Lady,

Soon I’m going to be graduating from college and going out into the “real world”.  I didn’t grow up in a “fancy” family, and dinner to me means a plate, a knife, a fork, a cup, and a paper napkin.  A friend recently told me I need to learn things like how to eat at a formal table setting if I wanted to make a good impression, when I’m in those situations.  Of course I do, but…does that sort of stuff really matter?


Dine N. Dash

Dear Dashy,

You’re not the first person who’s asked this question.  You surely won’t be the last person who’s asked this question.  It does seem almost antiquated and perhaps a little effete to those who are not to the manner born, when they have their first encounter a full, formal place setting.  Who needs all these forks, anyway?  Can’t you just hold it off to the side for course two and be done with it?  And who eats in “courses”, anyway?

Thanks to for the pic of a table that hurts so bad.

It’s a little daunting, isn’t it?  And I get it because I didn’t grow up in a fancy home that functioned this way, either.  Food was (is) served family-style, in the middle of the table, out of giant bowls, and everything got plunked with no ceremony onto one plate.  Two, if you had a salad bowl off to the side.  We all ate that way, we all lived to tell the tale.  Unfortunately, whether you like it or not, you’re going to encounter this.  At weddings, at business functions, a swanky place setting will cross your path.  It is absolutely in your best interests to learn how to navigate one.

Zamboni Lady used to work with students who were getting set to graduate college; we would have a special lunch together so I and some other staff members could help them get a grasp on this sort of etiquette.  Where to put one’s napkin.  Where the elbows belonged.  They were mainly working-class students who’d never encountered a table that even vaguely resembled a formal setting, and ooooh, how they fought me.  I heard more than my fair share of “Oh my God, are you kidding?”s and “This is stupid!”s.  Yeah, keep complaining…because careful!  You don’t want to learn something.  One young woman turned to me and said, “Shouldn’t they care about me, and not about which stupid fork I use?”

And therein lies the rub.  Yes, yes, they should care about you more than your fork, they should be enchanted by the wisdom issuing forth from your educated lips.  All this ceremonial dining is, ultimately, a social construct meant to stratify the “haves” over the “have-nots”, and should have no bearing in a theoretically classless society, like the US.   But here’s the thing: it does matter.  Just like they won’t take you seriously at a job interview in a bank if you walk in wearing flip-flops, they also won’t value what you’re saying as much if your table manners are atrocious.  You’ll draw more attention to your bad manners than you will to your meritorious words.  So here’s some advice:

1) Napkins down!  And by down, I mean, in your lap, not tucked up in your collar like it’s a bib.  You do know who uses bibs, right?  Babies, and extremely old or sick people who can’t chew anymore.  What image would you like to project?  That of someone who’s socially competent, or that of someone who can’t take care of him- or herself?  And dab, don’t wipe.  It’s a napkin, not a washcloth.  Rules for napkin use while eating wings at Hooters does not apply in polite company.  (Please, when eating wings at Hooters, use as many napkins as you want.  Wipe away!)

2) Dishware is used from top to bottom and the piece of silverware you choose is the outermost piece.  You know what soup is, right?  And that you eat it with a spoon?  When soup is served…use the most readily available spoon.  When you’re staring down a salad at the beginning of a meal, take a moment to reason out a few things.  First, do you eat it with a spoon or a fork?  If the correct answer is “fork” (which it is), then use the one farthest outside your plate on the left.

A map around the formal setting.

3) If you really can’t figure out WTF is going on, use it to your advantage.  Be the model of restraint.  Don’t act like you haven’t eaten for a week and need to dive in to your food in order to hoover it.  Delicately wait five, maybe ten seconds to see what everyone else at the table chooses.  Then whatever they do?  Do that.

4) Elbows.  OFF.  The table.  Whatever event you’re at, the food will be plentiful and you won’t have to protect your portion with your body.  True story: years ago, I was at a dinner honoring a certain former First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, who shall remain nameless.  I sat right across the table from him and thought he was a very nice man, I even gave him a watermelon Jolly Rancher before his speech because his throat was dry (best candy ever, and he enjoyed it very much indeed).  For the life of me I can’t remember what we talked about.  He hunkered over his plate, threw a protective arm around the top and shoveled his food in until every scrap was gone; it was perversely fascinating.  I had the distinct impression that if I’d tried to go near his plate, he would have stabbed me in the hand with his fork without missing a beat.

(As a corollary, try to put your fork down between bites.  You look more in control of yourself and it’s not as though your dinner will get spirited away if you’re not ever-vigilant with a raised fork.  It will still be on your plate when you pick your fork back up again, I promise.)

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, Zamboni Lady!  First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, that’s a pretty sweet title, and you say he had crappy table manners!  What gives?”

Fact: this was in 1999, and Russia was only eight years into its capitalist reform after casting off 74 years of Soviet repression.  The shortages the public endured in this time were well-known; toilet paper, fresh water, meat.  So the idea that this man might have a little bit of deprivation-related PTSD ought not to surprise you, but it also shouldn’t and doesn’t give you a free pass to straddle your food.

There’s so much about the concept of modern etiquette that has room for discussion.  Admittedly, I haven’t covered anywhere near everything that has to do with a formal service today.  For example, that tiny fork to the right is for shrimp, maybe oysters, which could be confusing in the “which fork do I use first?” question.  But if that’s at your place setting then your host would certainly intend for you to use that li’l guy first, pre-soup, pre-appetizer.  If that’s not used and gone first, then your host made the mistake, not you.  I’m not even going to delve into what happens when lobster forks or escargot forks appear–and quite frankly, if you’re somewhere that’s serving escargot for general consumption, you probably already know how to go about eating it and my advice here is moot.

On the positive side, none of this is unlearnable, even if it’s entirely unfamiliar.  One of the best ways to do this is to cultivate the habit of simply shutting up.  Stop protesting loudly that you don’t know how to do something, and just pay attention to how it’s done.  You’ll catch on.

Dear Zamboni Lady,

Please settle a bet: my friend and I have fifty dollars riding on this.  Is it true that to convey class and “good breeding”, you should stick your pinky out when you drink a beverage?  I say yes, she says that’s a mistake.


Pinkies-up forever

Dear Pinkies-up,

How’s it feel to lose fifty bucks?


This has been a popular misperception since somewhere around the 11th century.  It’s time for it to stop.  Hold your drink like a normal person, not like someone who is woefully uninformed yet smug about it.

Dear Zamboni Lady,

My son refuses to take his hat off at the dinner table.  I try and tell him that gentlemen always take their hats off when they sit down for supper, but he just shrugs and ignores me.  Sometimes he’ll spin his hat around so it’s facing backwards, as a “compromise”.  When he asks me about my hat I tell him that ladies don’t have to follow the same rules as men, and I can leave mine on.  Help?


Hattie McDon’tWearIt

Dear Hattie,

You’re cute.  No one wears hats any more.  Back in the day, when men and women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without a hat on, you’re absolutely right.  Ladies could keep their hats on but men removed them indoors, in the presence of ladies, and especially when they sat down to eat.  But universal hat-wearing dropped off after WWII and with it went an understanding of the rules of head gear.  Here are some.

1) Is your son wearing a baseball cap?  Like any other cap, it ought not to be worn indoors, but this style of hat in particular should be reserved for outdoor recreation.  Don’t give him a chance to disrespectfully turn his cap backwards; when he tries that, tell him he’s not eating until it’s off his head.  Your house, your rules.

2) You said he asks you about why you can wear your hat.  Are YOU wearing a baseball cap?  I can’t imagine you’re wearing some fussy little fascinator about the house

Fascinating, indeed.

but if you are then by all means, leave it on.  Ladies can always wear their dressy chapeaux indoors.  Though quite honestly, I’d like to know when you were planning to brunch with the Queen in this saucy little number.  However!  If you’re wearing a baseball cap, too, you don’t get a pass to wear it at the table because you’re female, hat hair or not and I don’t care if it’s your “nice” baseball cap.  Sorry to tell you this, but your son’s got some moral high ground on this if you claim gender privilege.  Baseball caps indoors?  Never.

7 responses to Zamboni Lady: What Happens at the Table…

  1. jp

    Your First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia story reminds me of a great bit from a Brecht play. The peasant Azdak is helping a rich man disguise himself as a poor one, and of course, it’s the table manners that are giving the rich man away. It goes something like this…

    Azdak: Do I have to teach you how a poor man eats?! Surround your plate with your arms, as if you fear it will be snatched from you at any moment!

    Now that I think of it, Azdak would be an awesome name for a cat…


      • jp

        *The Caucasian Chalk Circle.* Basically Brecht’s retelling of the “two women are fighting over who is the real mother of a child, so the wise judge recommends cutting the baby in half” story. With a heavy dose of revolution and class politics, of course (Brecht, duh).

        It’s probably my favorite Brecht play. There’s a passage spoken by the Chorus/Narrator while the peasant girl Grusha picks up the abandoned baby (there’s been a revolution and everyone else has fled for their lives) that can still make me weep.


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