Maybe the reason the guy sitting opposite me at the Christmas party was rubbing his chin so much isn’t that I was completely failing to brush something out of my beard. Maybe he was thinking that my brushing my cheek was an attempt to warn him that he had something in his beard. Well, the only way out of this would be for either of us to say something to the other, or to ask another person if we had anything in our beards. So, I’m sorry, but this is my life now. I bequeath my blogs to whoever first correctly identifies the best Sparks song ever. Be fair to the story comics.
One of the great things about Thanksgiving is it’s a chance for us to get out the silverware and dishes and cutlery and all that that we don’t dare get out when it’s just us eating because we haven’t got near enough self-esteem to treat themselves to the good silverware. By the good silverware we mean the silverware that’s somehow gotten tarnished even though it was definitely cleaned before it was put away last time, eleven months ago, in a series of individually custom-fitting plastic wrappers, from which it was untouched by human hands and even forgotten about for that whole stretch between April and late October. By the good dishes we mean the ones that are kind of small but have that fancy lining we’re afraid is going to be scraped off by picking up whole-berry cranberries with the fork. By the cutlery we’re pretty sure we mean something. By all that we mean the things overlooked before.
The defining characteristic of the good silverware is we have no idea what most of it is for because the only things we eat anymore are sandwiches wraps, granola bars that are almost four percent granola and 90 percent chocolate-laced corn syrup, and extruded blocks of Colby/Monterey Jack blended cheese. So here’s some of the key pieces:
Forks. These multi-tined food implements were introduced to Western Civilization during the Carolingian Renaissance, although after the notorious Stabbening of Aix-la-Chapelle they beat a hasty retreat and didn’t come back until things had gotten a whole bunch more civilized and somehow the 17th Century counted. They started with three tines, then four, reaching five just before the rise of time-management theory and Fred Taylor’s theory that they’d do better with as few tines as possible. Things went absurdly far, reducing the fork to just one long dagger-like spindle in the 1930s, when nobody had any food anyway. In the good silverware they come in a small version, for salads, in a big version, for the meal, in a tinier still version, for pie, in an extra-medium version, for some reason, and in a tiny version but with one really thick tine that looks kind of like Popeye’s bulging muskles, for Bluto to stare at silently while contemplating the injustices of fate.
Mysterious Spoons. Spoons should come in multiple sizes and dimensions, including several that are nearly all holes. Those are used when you’re trying to serve something that comes in a juice, which you leave behind because of the holes, which raises questions about whether you need the juice at all and maybe it turns out spoons are really more complicated than we realized. The important thing is to use the sharpest spoon there is to slice the gelatinized cranberries because it’s just so, so pretty when it gets sliced into neat little polygonal wedges. So pretty. So, so pretty.
Yam Mauls. These triangular posts, were designed to allow the more efficient splitting of yams or sweet potatoes by the yam pirates of the Pine Barrens. While their success in that can be disputed, so can pretty much everything else, including on what day of the week Tuesday falls, so you can’t really go by the fact there’s a dispute possible. If nothing else having one person with a yam maul means there’s the chance to end the debate on whether yams are just sweet potatoes or if there’s got to be a difference if they’re called different things. This theory fails if there’s two people with yam mauls.
Poseidon’s Trident. This long tri-tined fork is used to hold the main course in place and where needed to condemn impious seafarers beating about the wine-dark sea. Leave it in the hands of the most responsible person, which can be determined by seeing who has the longest beard of those white poofy curly things. (They’re allowed to be rental beards.) You don’t want this kind of power being put in the hands of someone trying to run the carrots aground on the Island of Circe.
Plates. There should be one master plate for the main meal, and a side plate for the salad, and a little bowl also for the salad, and maybe a tinier bowl yet for a soup, if you make soup, and if you don’t you can just use the littlest bowl as something to take out of the way before you start eating. There should also be enough glasses that some migrate to your seating partners and are never seen again; more upscale ones will send postcards relating their adventures tersely.
Don’t ask about the tablecloths. We don’t need that kind of trouble.
Q. I hope you might settle an etiquette question about holding open doors. One need hold the door only five to ten seconds before leaving without being thought rude, according to my pet ferret’s favorite yawn. This feels too short a time to me, as I have been holding open the door at a Wawa convenience store in Zilwaukee, Michigan, while waiting for this couple to decide whether they’re going in or not, since April of 1958. How long should I wait?
A. There are no Wawa stores in Michigan, not until 2019 when one pokes in, confused and looking for the bathroom. If you are certain of your current state, and who is, then we would have to say you should wait six more years at minimum.
Fred Allen is a comedian I didn’t discover, outside his famous quips about how committees work and about television, until I was well grown and listening to a lot of old time radio. He’s not remembered as well as his rival Jack Benny, and if you wish to point out Jack Benny isn’t well remembered I’ll come over there and spit on your driveway. Besides, Fred Allen did get a cameo in an autographed photo on 30 Rock last season.
Most of his writing defies quotability, as he liked to be very timely, and enjoyed commenting on the other comedians of the day, and so he has to be flanked by footnotes. But some bits carry through, such as this one from the Salad Bowl Revue of October 6, 1933, which is available on archive.org as part of their old time radio collection, and which I believe to be out of copyright. I can’t convey Allen’s voice in print, and unfortunately there aren’t even any good cartoons that parodied him, but he came from Boston so take your guesses and this really is what YouTube is for.
And now Mr Allen’s help and advice on etiquette:
Good night, ladies and gentlemen. Well, our etiquette department is going like a blacksmith’s clientele in a one-horse town, and a postcard tonight comes from Professor Merrill G Clark of Detroit, Michigan.
Professor Clark says, quote, “I am an English professor at a local college and always have trouble eating alphabet soup in restaurants. Invariably the waiter serves me a plate of alphabet soup containing grammatical errors which he expects me to swallow. I have taught English for so long that a grammatical error even in this form upsets me internally. What should I do?” Unquote.
Alphabet soup has always been a problem to grammarians, Professor Clark. Many professors finding errors correct the soup and send it back to the chef, giving him some homework besides. Other teachers send for soup censors supplied by the makers of the illiterate broth. The censors will gladly remove any objectionable words that may have formed in your soup; but generally, by the time the censor leaves your soup is cold and, while you may enjoy a grammatical triumph, gastronomically you are defeated.
The best thing to do is to order your alphabet soup with the H’s dropped and eat it as English mutton broth. Since fully sixty percent of the soup consumed in this country ends up on men’s vests anyway, you are really swallowing nothing but your pride and forty percent of the liquid insult.
If you, too, have a problem in etiquette lying unsolved in your dumbwaiter, ladies and gentlemen, why not send me the spare parts of a possible faux pas and I shall be glad to spank my mind in an effort to help you as I know I have helped Professor Clark tonight?
A bit of Internet searching reveals to me there was a Canadian diplomat named Merrill G Clark, but I can’t figure out when he lived, or if there were any reason that Allen might have heard such a name, or whether he just made up something that sounded plausible and not distracting.