As I explained a few weeks ago, we're trying something new here at Food & Think, a semi-regular feature called Inviting Writing. Each month, we'll offer our readers a general theme to chew on—this month's was "manners"—and an example of a related story. Then, we hope you'll feel inspired to e-mail us your own true, food-related stories on that theme.
Thank you to those of you that responded to our call for submissions! We've selected a few of the best, and will run them on Mondays for the next several weeks. If yours wasn't chosen, please try again next month; we'll announce a new theme in May.
Barbecue Etiquette By Katrina Moore
I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee, in a neighborhood where the ladies looked perfectly put-together every day, paid their landscapers, took on charity projects and went to church with their husbands on Sundays.
“Manners Class” was my seventh-grade term for an etiquette course taught in the home of Mrs. Thorson, an elegant Southern woman with the cleanest house I’d ever seen. There, we learned poise by walking with books on our heads, which was cause for much giggling in a group of clumsy adolescents. We learned what colors looked best with our skin and whether we were a spring, summer, fall, or winter color palate. We discussed attending social events and talking to boys; I think we even had a lesson on waltzing. This was saccharine Southern charm at its sweetest and most sinister.
In one of our lessons, Mrs. Thorson sat us around her kitchen table. We learned the purpose of each fork, knife, spoon, and plate. We learned not to eat with our fingers unless the situation directly called for it. When buttering bread, for example, one is to tear off only the amount one can put in her mouth, rather than buttering and attempting to bite into the whole thing at once. We were excited to try out our new skills at the graduation dinner, a dress-up meal at a fancy place in the city.
The dinner involved much dainty sipping, meat cutting, and napkin folding, but I was so focused on perfection that I neglected to have any fun. Looking back, I see an awkward 12-year-old desperately trying to fit into a genteel environment. I thought I might grow up to be like these neighborhood women: charming, smiling, and poised. Before I understood that the smiles were all too often replacements for sincerity, I wanted to be like them and didn’t understand why I wasn’t.
About a week later, I attempted to eat barbecued ribs with the same delicacy I employed at the graduation dinner, but the ribs refused. A fork and knife proved to slide them all over my plate, smearing it with red-brown sauce. With some prodding from my family, I finally acknowledged the necessity of picking up the ribs—but I still tried to use only the tips of my fingers, and pulled back my lips as far as possible to keep them clean.
After the first bite, I realized that I was never going to finish my dinner that way, so I dug in with gusto. My lips burned with spice, and I could feel the fatty meat and astringent sauce commingling on my tongue. So what if there was some sauce on my face and hands? When I freed myself of strict social limitations, the food actually tasted better. I even licked my fingers as I reached for the moist towelette, satisfied.
Don't tell Mrs. Thorson!