Mess It Up

Thursday's front page article in the New York Times supplement, Marketplace titled "But Can You Handle the Olive Pits?" reveals that "the lack of formal dining knowledge seems especially acute in Generation Y - generally considered anyone born after 1980." The story went on to say that colleges were solving this problem by holding dining etiquette classes for their students in an effort to give them an edge during interviews and business meetings that occur over lunch.

The article offers such tips as do not ask for the salt before tasting your food (it implies that you make rash decisions), do not ask for a doggie bag (it's about business, not lunch) and no chewing on your ice (it makes you look nervous). But the article did not answer the question, what if you don't like your food?

I had to ask myself this very question as a young professional, new to my job as a junior designer. I was excited. My first big project was working with the owner of the company and I wanted to wow him with my innovative typography as well as my professional demeanor.

The project was a pro bono brochure for his son's school, and it was time to present the final design mockup to the client. Because our agency was doing the project for free, the client insisted on bringing lunch to our meeting as a token of thanks. When the client arrived carrying three paper bags from her "favorite bagel place" I was slightly worried. As the bags were emptied, a sense of dread came over me. All three included a large mound of cream cheese. There was so much cream cheese on these sandwiches that it was oozing out the sides, making it impossible to touch the bagel without covering my fingers with the white stuff. Smells of scallion, onion and mixed berries came wafting over to me as I was shaken out of my trance by a voice asking me which one I wanted. I couldn't say, "NONE. I hate cream cheese. It makes me gag" so I quietly choked out, "the cinnamon raison bagel will be fine."

I tried various techniques to relieve the ample spread from the bagel. Rolling it about on the wax paper. Taking a knife to make it appear as if I was spreading it, but actually scraping it off and depositing the excess in the bag. Basically I was making a huge mess. I took one bite as a gesture of good will and followed it with a big chug of soda in an effort to mask the taste. In the end, it was futile. After the client had left, my boss turned to me and said, "You really hated that sandwich, didn't you?"

So, after reading the New York Times article and remembering this story, I dusted off the Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior that I received in 1988 as a graduation gift from my aunt. And in the Basic Civilization: Declining Food chapter, I found out that I handled the situation in a socially acceptable way. Here is what Miss Manners advises:

What you do to be polite is to mess it up. Grabbing the top of your fork, to keep as much distance as possible between you and the despised goodie, you shove it from one end of the plate to another. Or you hide it under the nearest green leaf. Anything to avoid admitting that you haven't yum-yummed it right down.
Ann, Jul 2 2005 2:34PM

My mother-in-law gave me an Emily Post etiquette book when we got married. It is really interesting to read and I have referred to it on many occasions.

I'm surprised your client didn't just bring a bag of bagels with the cream cheese in separate tubs. The only time I can remember being faced with a food that I didn't like but felt obligated to eat was when a former boss took my husband and I out to a really nice restaurant and ordered liver pate as a starter. I thought I would like it, so I spread it thick onto my cracker. That first bite was awful, but I felt like I had to finish it.

carol, Jul 26 2005 4:31PM

I understand the cream chees issue. some people have the same trouble with food that is round,