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Like many Americans who came of age in the placid haven of post-World War II, pre-Vietnam suburbia, I graduated from the insular security of my mother's kitchen table to the high-powered dining rooms of the real world ill-equipped to impersonate a civilized person. Like a good suburban apostate, when I finally sat down for my first meal at the Four Seasons, I knew two things: Don't chew with your mouth open and don't talk with your mouth full. Given the vagaries of my average American childhood, this strikes me as entirely forgivable. It was more important to my mother that I had opposable thumbs; I could learn about salad forks and fondue sticks some other time. Now, some 20 years later, having reached the station in life where I find myself in socio-gastronomic situations that require the application of an increasingly complex array of silverware, I'll be the first to admit I could use a little help.
Enter Miss Manners. For nearly two decades the Washington, D.C., syndicated columnist Judith Martin has been a beacon of clarity for self-conscious impostors like myself. For anyone unfamiliar with her pithy, whip-smart advice, her latest book, Miss Manners' Basic Training: Eating -- "a fast remedial course for those who have never learned, and a review for those who weren't paying close attention" -- is essential reading. As with most of the Manners catalog, Basic Training is built around a collection of epistolary exchanges between Dear Miss Manners and her endless supply of hopelessly befuddled but well-intentioned Gentle Readers. Divided into three concise sections (equipment and its use, food traps and basic eating rituals), with user-friendly illustrations and a thorough index, Basic Training is both functional and highly entertaining -- a handy manual for the etiquette-challenged.
Like Bob Dole, Miss Manners leans heavily on the third person and a seemingly endless supply of pungent one-liners. But those unprepared for the Manners style will be surprised to find that she is far from fuddy-duddy. In fact, in her own way, she's surprisingly funny. She's also an excellent writer. Not only does Miss Manners know what she's talking about, she knows how to say it extremely well. On the most important meal of the day: "the proper breakfast tray features a small-scale china set with a cover over the eggs and toast, not only to keep these items warm but to ease the jolt of seeing food at that hour."
The range of Miss Manners' expertise seems limitless. Among the many old-fashioned awkward situations addressed -- plate licking, double dipping, elbows-on-tables, spinach-in-teeth, asparagus-eating (with the hands, unless limp and soggy) -- you will find much up-to-date, '90s-style guidance. Topical issues include office-eating odors, cell-phone style, power lunching, roaches and check splitting. How do you indicate the end of a meal? Simple. Place your utensils (tips pointing inward on the plate) so they signal 10:20.
Let us not deceive ourselves. We'd all be barbarians without Miss Manners' watchful eye. These are complicated times. For immediate needs and distant contingencies, Basic Training should be part of every home. -- Salon