Table manners: Time was, they told the tale. They were the measure of a man or woman who wanted to impress someone else, who wanted to make a statement without saying a word, wanted a job or a promotion. It wasn’t a matter for discussion or debate. Manners were what you grew up learning and practicing. They were an essential component of being an adult.
For reasons that aren’t difficult to fathom, manners – at least the hard-and-fast rules of etiquette championed by Emily Post and her disciples – have been in eclipse for some time. Blame whomever or whatever you choose; you know it’s true.
But that eclipse is passing, according to Fred Mayo. The need for manners has never been more acute. If you think of manners not as a set of rules, but simply as a way of behaving toward others, you need only spend five minutes on the internet to recognize its necessity. You’ll see a lot of online rants about the lack of civility and patience and attention and care. But while others rant, Mayo has done something about it. He has written, together with photographer Michael Gold, Modern American Manners: Dining Etiquette for Hosts and Guests: a book not of rules, but of examples, good and bad; a guidebook, if you will, that illustrates the need for and ultimate rewards of good table manners.
No one who knows Mayo could confuse him with the stereotypical image of the prim, rule-spewing Miss Thistlebottoms whom the word “manners” may conjure. Mayo has an extensive academic background. He’s a retired clinical professor of Hospitality and Tourism at New York University. If he resembles any sort of a certain breed, it’s that of the bon vivant, the guy who enjoys a good time, who is both consumer and skilled provider of such.
To Mayo, manners are a gate that, once opened, can lead to all the things that previous generations expected manners to deliver. But more important than a job or a promotion, Mayo sees manners as a path to nothing less than fun.
The book was written, he said, primarily with students entering the workplace in mind, but also with an eye toward people from all walks of life who want or need to know how to conduct themselves in restaurants, at dinner parties, even on dates. The book covers a wide range of expectable conditions and situations, from a variety of viewpoints, be you a guest or a host.
Though Mayo suggests, as any author would, that the book be read from start to finish, it’s constructed so that, when a particular need or question arises, you can flip through it and use it as a guidebook. It can also fulfill its aim of being fun by being opened at random.
For example: My eye was caught by an early chapter titled “Conduct Becoming a Guest.” Since I’m much more likely to be a guest than the host of a dinner party, I was drawn there, and was tickled to find some (illustrated) examples of poor manners, offered herewith as a free public service:
Do not chew food with your mouth open.
Do not blow your nose at the dinner table, and certainly not into the dinner napkin.
Do not slurp your soup.
Nothing revolutionary there, you say. But further on in the chapter, there’s an aspect of dinner partying that everyone fears but no one has written about, until now: what to do in “awkward situations.” Mayo lists and deals with burping, sneezing, leaving the table to take a call and passing gas.
It may surprise you, as it did me, to be reminded that burping at the table is acceptable behavior in the Middle East and Asia. Anywhere else, you’re best advised to stifle it as best you can.
Further on, the chapter on business settings includes a list of foods to avoid ordering at business events. These include any food that requires using your hands instead of a knife and fork (away, artichokes! farewell, chicken wings! take a hike, Mister Mussel!) Also, watch out for French onion soup, ribs and oversize sandwiches. If you need any explanation for those suggestions, you definitely need this book.
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it nonetheless: No book that Fred Mayo writes can be dull or predictable. Encompassing and surprising, yes; entertaining and informative, you bet. But dull? Easy to put down? Nope. Where’s the fun in that?
Fred Mayo and Michael Gold will give a book talk, explain how the book was written and what it’s all about at the Gardiner Library on Sunday, April 2 at 2:30 p.m. There will also be a book launch, book talk and book-signing at Garvan’s Gastropub pavilion in New Paltz on Thursday, April 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. RSVP is necessary to firstname.lastname@example.org.