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Miss Manners: Here’s the scoop about silverware

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Dear Miss Manners: I am trying to collect a set of silverware, and I'm still confused because the names of pieces are not always the same. I keep seeing a ``place'' spoon (and occasionally a ``place'' fork and ``place'' knife that seem to be luncheon sized).

Unfortunately, ``place'' doesn't describe the spoon's purpose to me. In my pattern, there are advertised: a cream soup spoon, a place/oval soup spoon and a dessert/tear shaped soup spoon. I think that is one too many soups (not counting bullion and gumbo).

Is the ``place'' spoon really the dessert spoon? Does the soup spoon care if it has an oval or tear-shaped bowl? Is buying silver making me obsessive compulsive?

I will not even ask about the cocktail/seafood fork/oyster fork /pickle/olive/lemon fork dilemma since they all look alike to me. As for the 5'o'clock spoon, or the ``youth size'' utensils, I thought Miss Manners had declared the age of inventing new silver pieces over.

Gentle Reader: Indeed. The key is the date at which Miss Manners declares a cut-off. On a bad day, she thinks that maybe 1797 would have been a good time, in which case any of us would be lucky to be issued a fork. Then again, she remembers all the fun she would be missing if the world were bereft of strawberry forks.

The so-called ``place'' pieces are a comparatively recent attempt at simplification. Between luncheon and dinner size, they are supposed to fit not only any time of day, but any course. As you may suspect, Miss Manners does not quite like them, but not because she wants to complicate people's lives and ruin their budgets.

Her objection is that they make it difficult to serve a meal with more than one course requiring a fork and knife. You can do it by buying double sets (or by running to the kitchen sink between courses), but it looks redundant. The old method, before the mid-19th-century proliferation of specialized utensils, was to have a small set (not only for luncheon service, but for fish courses and such) and a large set (for the main course).

There was also a large oval tablespoon that was used for clear soup served in soup plates, a round spoon used for cream soup served in soup cups, a smaller round spoon for bouillon, and a medium-sized oval spoon used for dessert. How's that for your peace of mind?

In any case, these distinctions have been largely lost, but Miss Manners would rather see the oval soup spoon used for dessert than the teaspoon.

Dear Miss Manners: I have a sister that constantly sends birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, etc., early. By early, I mean, sometimes as much as two months in advance.

I find this rude and odd at the same time. When asking her why she does this, her answer is so that she does not forget, since she travels so often (does not have a traveling job).

I personally am just as offended in this as I am in her potentially being late or forgetting entirely. To me, it demonstrates her inconsiderate ways in not caring about the meaning behind a specific important event and or date. How would you propose dealing with this, and, is it ``normal''?

Gentle Reader: It is normal, Miss Manners gathers from far more disgruntled letters than yours, to send presents late. Or to forget to send them at all. Or, as in your case, to quibble instead of being grateful.

Dear Miss Manners: For several years, my significant other has said that, when a group of people are dining together, the conversation is foremost.

Therefore, she says, whenever someone starts talking, good manners dictate that everyone else should stop eating and put down their forks, and she says we should do this even if no one else does. (At least she has the good manners not to inform the others of this supposed requirement when we are dining with a group.)

I keep telling her that her idea about dining etiquette is ridiculous. If there is continuous back-and-forth conversation and everyone did as she thinks they should, nothing would get eaten and the food would eventually get cold. (The picture comes to my mind of everyone's silverware being put on their plates in clicking unison whenever someone starts talking and being picked up again in unison when that person stops talking, with the process repeating when someone responds to the previous speaker.)

I can't get her to understand that her idea has no basis in the rules of etiquette. Am I right in this? What say you?

Gentle Reader: Where did she get that rule? From a list headed ``How to Kill a Dinner Party''?

Not only would the food grow cold, but so would the conversation. Can you imagine yourself making an amusing little observation to your dinner partner, only to look up and see all those staring, hungry eyes?

Please tell the lady that the rule forbids talking with your mouth full; it does not forbid listening with your mouth full.

Dear Miss Manners: According to my dictionary, a lady is described as: 1. originally, a woman of authority over a house or an estate, of the same rank as a lord; 2. a well-bred woman; a woman of good family or of high social position; a gentlewoman.

Please advise me, has the definition of a ``lady'' changed so that a female addressed as such should be offended? Just recently, this happened in my presence. The female addressed is most certainly highly regarded -- as on a pedestal (the highest respect).

Gentle Reader: But she was no lady.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at MissManners@unitedmedia.com, or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016 or (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.

?Copyright 2008 by Judith Martin