Forty young men and women, dressed in their Sunday best with red sequins and white lace dresses, long pants, and tucked-in, collared shirts, file quietly into the formal dining room. Silently beholding the beautifully decorated tables, set with the full complement of silver, glass, linen napkins, and place name cards, the guests politely stand behind their chairs until all have arrived, waiting for the gentlemen to pull out chairs to seat the ladies. Once seated, soft, polite conversation ensues. Are we at Downton Abbey? No! We are at the Afton Christian School’s annual Etiquette Lunch.
Each year on Valentine’s Day, ACS’s students are treated to a formal, five-course luncheon, complete with instruction on the proper table manners and social behavior appropriate for such an occasion. There are two seatings: the 40 kindergarten through sixth graders eat at 11:30, and then everything is cleared and set up a second time for the 7th through 12th graders to dine at 1 p.m. Students are asked to dress nicely, and the room is beautifully decorated with Valentine-themed centerpieces and table confetti. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited! The delicious meal was catered by former ACS parent Amika Salisbury, with seven parent volunteers assisting and four high school students serving the younger group. Headmistress Lori Knight supervised the younger set, and upper school director Andy Shifflett, the high school crowd.
“The purpose of learning etiquette is so you will feel comfortable at a formal occasion, not uncomfortable,” explained Kimberly Gale, who provides the instruction as well as teaching ACS’s 1st and 2nd grades. “Whether attending a wedding reception, job interview, or dining at the country club, if you know what to do and the correct way to behave, you can relax and enjoy yourself. Etiquette is a visible sign of your upbringing and your manners. And of course, proper behavior is also a courtesy to your hostess and to the other guests.” Gale herself learned etiquette from her mother, who had majored in home economics. Just as proper etiquette is a lost art, so home economics is still a highly practical subject that should be taught in our public schools.
So if you’ve ever wondered which fork to use when, or if—like me—your table manners are a bit rusty, hang onto your hats! Here is what I learned.
The place setting includes a smaller salad fork outside a full-sized food fork on the left, a knife with the sharp side turned in (toward the plate) on the right, and beyond the knife a beverage spoon and then a soup spoon on the outside. At the top of the plate, parallel to the table edge, go the dessert spoon and/or fork. The bread plate sits to the left of both forks, and the glasses (water and other) at the tip of the knife on the right. The folded or ringed napkin is placed to the left of the forks, not under them (or if folded to stand up, they may be set on the plate).
Within one minute of sitting down (who knew?) neatly unfold your napkin (don’t snap or shake it out) and lay it across your lap, where it should stay for the rest of the meal. Only use it to wipe your mouth, not to wipe your face, your nose, or clean up spills (that’s the server’s job).
Once everyone was seated, we were immediately served with the first course, an hors-d’oeuvre of breaded chicken with a honey-mustard sauce, complete with its own little two-pronged fork. In another situation, I assume this might have been bread. We were admonished not to start eating until everyone at the table had been served; once that happened, one of the older students was asked to say a heartfelt grace. It was the hostess’ job to lift her fork to let everyone know they could start eating, perhaps with a comment such as, “doesn’t this look delicious?” —more ladylike than “Dig in!”
Once the hors-d’oeuvre was consumed and removed, the second course of salad or fruit was served. Food is always served from the left, and taken away from the right. Choosing which utensil to use is simple if you remember the rule: use utensils from the outside in, and never re-use one. So the outermost fork is used for the salad (a lovely concoction of kale and cubes of cooked butternut squash), and when the tomato bisque came next, we used the outermost spoon from the right. Soup should be scooped away from you (surprise!) with no slurping. Never put the whole spoon in your mouth (oops), and don’t bend your head down to meet the food; instead, sit erect and bring the food up to your mouth. So much to think about! It’s a good thing they practice every year.
What should you talk about at a nice meal like this one? Pleasant things that keep the mood cheerful. You should talk with a soft voice, and avoid topics that might cause an argument. You can see the shock, at the Downton Abbey table, and Lady Violet’s stern disapproval, when this rule is broken!
You don’t have to eat all of any course. When you’ve had enough of a course, simply lay that utensil across the edge of your plate (which may be underneath a bowl) at an angle, from lower right to upper left; if you imagine your plate as a clock, this would be from 4 to 10. This is a signal to the server that you are finished and s/he can take that plate away—so be careful not to place it there before you’re finished! The next spoon in line is used to stir your beverage. Your cup or glass should always be returned to its spot above the tip of the knife after drinking.
And now it was time for the fourth, or main course, which was a beautifully presented sliced chicken breast with gravy, a potato skin cup full of mashed potatoes, and fresh green beans. Yum! To cut the meat, pick up the knife with your right hand and your remaining fork with the left. Cut off one or two bites —don’t cut all your meat at same time(another of my bad habits)—then lay down your knife, switch the fork to your right hand, and begin eating. Never eat with your left hand! Also, never lick your knife. As you can see, all of these rules slow down the meal so it, and the company of friends, can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Eat with your right hand, and keep your left hand in your lap until needed. (Yet another bad habit for me to break!) Other general rules include never putting your elbows on the table, or raising them to bump your neighbor while cutting your food. Put your food down when you speak, and never talk with your mouth full, even partially. Chew with your mouth closed and don’t wave your fork around while talking. I definitely remember my grandmother, who lived with us until I was 14, admonishing me about these dicta. Never use your cell phone at the table. Put it on silent at the beginning of the meal, and if it vibrates, ignore it. In the case of an emergency, excuse yourself from the table and go to another room to take the call.
The fifth course, dessert, was worth waiting for—a key lime bar on a crumb crust with a dollop of whipped cream and lime sauce zig-zagged across the plate. I’m sure the students felt as pampered as I did! At the end of the meal, the napkin should be loosely folded and replaced on the table to the left of the plate, never wadded up and left on the plate or the chair.
By the end of the meal, I felt that the barbarian within me had been tamed. So the next time you are invited to dine with the Queen, you’ll be ready! I was most impressed with the ladylike and gentlemanly behavior of the elementary students with whom I enjoyed a fabulous lunch. They spoke softly, were polite throughout the meal, and asked relevant—not silly—questions. “I find that when we set high expectations,” said Ms. Gale, “students will rise to the occasion.”
Afton Christian School, which meets in the Church of the Blue Ridge on Rt. 151, has welcomed students in grades K-12 since 2001 with its mission to achieve, cultivate, and serve. The 80-plus students, who hail from Afton, Nellysford, Crozet, Lovingston, and Waynesboro, study an academic curriculum with a Christian worldview, including weekly student-led chapel and a robust sports program. Students in the upper grades read the classics.