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Dinner Decorum 

Turkey-table talk with etiquette master Peter Post

Forks, football and feminism had yet to be invented at the "first Thanksgiving," which took place in 1621. Communal cups of wine were passed around but the food was not - each person feasted on the venison, cod or eels within reach. Since silverware was scarce, people ate with their hands, talking and laughing as they threw clean-picked bones into the fire and spat on the ground. When the meal was over, the men headed off for some target practice while the women cleaned. Later, there was dancing.

Holidays are all about ritual and tradition. But knowing how the Pilgrims operated is clearly an insufficient guide for modern guests and hosts. For example, how do you deal with technology at the table? What happens when each of your guests is on a different diet? And in a big family, who gets to sample the crispy, mahogany-colored turkey skin?

We asked Peter Post, the great-grandson of manners mistress Emily Post, to answer some of these questions. Post, 56, is the director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington and an author of etiquette books including Essential Manners for Men and Essential Manners for Couples.

SEVEN DAYS: To begin with, could you tell me the strangest questions you've gotten about Thanksgiving manners?

PETER POST: I'm not sure I have strange questions . . . books cover all these things . . . whether it's people showing up with people they shouldn't be showing up with, or deciding who's going to sit at what table . . . or the kid who's playing a videogame or has earbuds in.

SD: Kids these days have cellphones, they text-message each other. People bring Blackberries to dinner. What do you think about the digital age encroaching on the Thanksgiving table?

PP: In the big, global picture, there's nothing wrong with all of that. I think we have to learn how to master those technologies rather than be a slave to them . . . Our real advice is, learn when it ought to be on and when it ought not to be on. Be willing to turn it off.

SD: Just because it beeps doesn't mean you have to answer it.

PP: Right.

SD: I've been doing some research on the first Thanksgiving. What if I wanted to make my dinner more like that one - how would it look?

PP: The drinks would be interesting - you probably wouldn't have glasses of milk and stuff. There might be water, but I suspect there would be more hard cider. You'd probably have to cook it all over an open fire and you might discover that it's a lot harder than what you thought. But it's eating a meal like that in 45-degree weather at tables outside that might be real interesting.

SD: I'll stick to eating indoors. Back to the modern era, food fads and diets are becoming more and more prevalent. A few years ago people were asking, "What do we do for the vegetarian?" Now there are vegans, raw foodists and folks who are macrobiotic and on Atkins. What's a host's responsibility when every single guest might have a different culinary need or desire?

PP: I think you could go absolutely stark raving mad if you tried to respond to and provide food for every type of dietary need out there. I think what you need to do is to prepare a traditional meal that by its very nature will have vegetables . . . That said . . . talk to them ahead of time and say, "Listen, I know that you're macrobiotic. Would you want to bring something? I'd be glad to plate it for you, but I want to make sure that you're covered, and I'm worried that the traditional turkey dinner may not be something you can eat."

SD: Conversely, I have a friend who used to be a vegetarian, and her boyfriend's mother used to sneak meat onto her plate because she thought my friend should eat it.

PP: We need to respect if a person's vegetarian. I'm perfectly happy not to put the white turkey meat on someone's plate, because I'll want it [laughs]. But that's just deceptive, dishonest and, in my book, not acceptable. Because one of the basic tenets of etiquette is being honest with people and being respectful of them.

SD: Another tricky situation - how do you deal with food pushers? When someone wants you to have seconds, or when someone says, "Please try the pie, it's my specialty." But you're just not hungry, or the food doesn't fit into your diet, then what do you say?

PP: I appreciate your effort, thank you very much, but I am full. I'm all set. Nope, really, I am all set.

SD: Stick to your guns!

PP: Stick to your guns, say no. Routinely now at restaurants, I don't finish my meal because they give me too much food. And the same thing is true if I go to somebody's house where they pile on the food for me and give me a plate all served. Once I've reached my capacity, I'm done. And I no longer believe in the clean-plate rule that used to be thrown at me as a kid . . . Don't make a big deal about it, that's the thing. Just leave it. And if they say, "Are you done - is there something wrong?" "No, I just don't eat as much as I used to. I've had a wonderful meal. It was the best. Thank you very much."

SD: Is it appropriate to offer to take the food home with you? Say, "This was amazing pie, but I'm just so full - I'd love to take it home so I can finish it later."

PP: [Laughs derisively] The doggie bag? Not at a private dinner type of a thing . . . Once it's been on the plate and the person's germs are a part of it . . . at that point, I'm afraid it's either going to the dogs, or the garbage disposal, or the garbage.

SD: I figured you'd say that.

PP: The dog may appreciate you tremendously for this.

SD: What if all the food is on the table and you are still hungry? How do you go about beginning "seconds?"

PP: Even if people are still eating their firsts, once you've finished you can ask for a little more. If it's not readily available, you probably want to wait and see if the hostess offers seconds. If not, you might even be willing to say, "Boy, that was just awesome. If there was just a little more of the turkey and gravy, I'd love to tuck into that." And that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

SD: What's the statute of limitations before you're allowed to go make yourself a turkey sandwich? When does it officially become "leftovers?"

PP: After dessert's all finished and everybody is finished and the kitchen's been cleaned up, then you could. I think it would be egregious to walk into the kitchen while people are still cleaning up and whip everything back out and start making a mess yet again.

SD: How about this one: You go to the same place year after year and they always overcook the turkey. Is there any polite way to make a suggestion about that?

PP: No, 'cause maybe they like it that way. I don't see it - it's like going to somebody's house who cooks the steak medium. What you hope is they'll ask if you like it rare . . . When you go into somebody else's world, into their culture, part of what you do is accept their ways of doing things.

SD: Speaking of turkey culture, I've been wondering about the carving hierarchy. Say I'm the host and I invite my in-laws and my parents. I would be the one to carve the turkey if I didn't have guests. My mom or dad would carve the turkey if we were at their house. So when they're all at my house, who gets to carve the turkey?

PP: The host or the hostess. The people giving the party, preparing the food, are responsible for actually cutting up that food and divvying it out, in essence. Now, they may want to say to dad or to dad-in-law, "You know, you really are the master at this. If you'd like to step in and help, I'd be happy to have you do it." That's a fine thing to do.

SD: In my house, the turkey skin is the most prized part of the turkey. When you have too many guests, who gets the turkey skin?

PP: [Laughs] That's a great question. I suppose you could raffle it off. You could draw straws. I might be tempted, if there was a limited amount of something and lots of people wanted it, to have some kind of a little prize situation, and somebody wins it.

SD: Or people who do get it would have to do the dishes afterwards?

PP: If some people aren't going to get it, you might as well make something that's fun for everybody.

Have more questions about etiquette? Visit www.emilypost.com.

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Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Bio:
Contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the former Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose,... more

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