June 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Table manners

By |2018-03-21T18:24:29+01:00March 1st, 2007|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Then she asked with knitted brow, “Um... are the tomatoes peeled?”

I am having trouble with my dinner parties. Actually it started in Los Angeles when a guest brought his needle-thin girlfriend to our table and she excused herself saying that she couldn’t tolerate “shrimpy smells.” She disappeared again as we were slicing the sautéed duck with Cognac and prune sauce. “How can you eat Donald,” she shrieked? “Or those cute little ducks at the park? I’ll bet you eat lamb, too!”

Yes, we do, darlin’, and tiny goat ribs, and those itty bitty chickens from Val d’Aosta alla diavola, and poor defenseless little quail, flattened and grilled over coals (a touch of lemon) or tossed in seasoned flour and browned quickly in extra virgin olive oil, finished with a splash of red wine and a tiny spoon of butter to make their silky sauce.

And we also eat sea urchin and pituitary glands and lombata di vitello and, Oh… My… God… snails! At this point she was on the edge of retching, so I kindly offered some leftover pasta with fresh tomato, basil and a touch of garlic that we’d had for lunch. An innocent dish, and, the third offering of the evening, but then she asked with knitted brow, “Um… are the tomatoes peeled?”

Uh, oh.

My friends savoring their duck and little fried artichokes (“yuk, I don’t eat anything fried”) sat bemused, just waiting for the chef to pick up a carving knife and silence the comments. When the chocolate marquise hit her plate, I was sure the butter, eggs, heavy cream, Valrhona chocolate and a nice pool of crème anglaise would get her started again.

Surprise, surprise.

“Ooohhh, I just love chocolate,” she crooned, asking for more sauce.

Yeah, I’ll bet you do, even though you’re really eating baby chickens, fat, and upping your serotonin levels to the max, which in your case may not be such a good idea.

Still, she loved the dessert, so I slipped back into gracious hostess mode, not an easy task that evening.

My question of the month is only this: Whatever happened to manners? Where are the “yes,” the “please” and the “no, thank you” without additional comment? Where have all the adventuresome eaters gone? Why is food an obsession instead of something that tastes really good? And it’s not just about duck breasts.

Some people have real concerns: dairy allergies, vegetarian ideologies, even just plain old preferences for a healthier diet — all good reasons for careful eating, but what about a preoccupation with the dangers of, say, a piece of cheese? A slice of bread? A delicious little grilled chop?

No wonder people are binging, throwing up, starving themselves literally to death, and, consequently, ending up with a diminishing respect for moderate servings of good food plus good company. Let’s face it, how can you enjoy your dinner when you’re worrying about every morsel and its consequences?

In American homes the cook now serves separate meals to husband or child or whomever shows up to eat. Oh, boy, what a mistake. And what a waste of time and energy for the poor cook! My mother’s view was, “If you don’t like it, leave the table,” but of course we never did. She was too good a cook and we saw the pleasure she took in feeding us asparagus with hollandaise (it was the 60s), coq au vin (she was the first on her block to take Gourmet Magazine and really use it), and bread fresh from the oven.

Are mothers falling down on the job? Can children learn to eat with adults and like what’s on their plate, or are our food fetishes and bad habits simply the product of a globalized McDonald’s world? When kids spend the day snacking on what the French call cochonerie, how can they ever train their palates to know real cuisine?

So I’m going to write about where food is going, where it has been, what’s happening to our tongues and palates and what we can do to take the fear out of eating.

Yes, fear.

Because when I see a guest grimacing at a bowl of fresh shrimp steamed with a little garlic and tossed with Eureka lemon juice and Umbrian olive oil, I know there’s a big, big problem.

What’s your food gripe? What turns you on, and off? Any questions at all about food are welcome, but I can’t promise I’ll be kind. Maybe when I get over having my fresh pasta rejected.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.