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The Peas and Chews of Etiquette
by Andrea Frost
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two


Trying to impress your new squeeze? Need to shine for the boss so he doesn't blame you? Parole coming up? The need for etiquette is a given, but sometimes what you thought was right, just isn't cool. Here we look at oysters, olive pips, bread rolls and mobiles to work out what's gonna get you in.

Can you chew an oyster?

Surprisingly, yes. To sort this one out, we called upon Michael Kadamani of the Melbourne Oyster Bar, who in his 25 years as proprietor has seen more oysters slide than Jamaica's got mangoes.

The whole swallowing of the oyster thing came about in an effort to control the flavour of the oyster. When people are beginning to eat oysters, they are encouraged by such people as Michael and his Oyster Bar experts, to eat cooked oysters with a sauce. This way, the taste of the oyster is not overpowering and you're more likely to eat them again. "This is the best way to build up the palate toward eating them natural."

When you're comfortable eating oysters this way, it's onto fresh oysters. This is where the Swallow Your Oysters rule came in. Swallowing the oyster minimises a bit of the taste, which when you're not used to it, can be a tad off-putting. Again, once you build up a taste for them fresh, the next step is to chew them. Only this way, says Michael, can you properly taste the oysters and all the regional differences between them. Otherwise, it's a waste of taste.

Mop up your slop with a bread roll?

There you are perched at the table, almost satisfied but for the puddle of warm, salty gravy spread over your plate. It's just you, your hosts, half a bread roll and a bubble of mystery. Can you mop up this sauce with your bread roll? "Yes you can." Bingo. "But only at the end," guides Kylie Carlson, etiquette specialist at the Suzan Johnston training organisation in Melbourne. You can't go replacing your cutlery with a bread roll and eating your food from your roll, but you can mop your plate clean with your roll. It is in fact one of the uses of the dinner roll. If you're having soup, it's also fine to use your roll to collect what the spoon can't get to. Again, only at the end and make sure you tip the bowl away from you.

Can you ever eat with your fingers?

Yes says Kylie. But before you loosen your collar and roll up your sleeves in preparation for your next feed, keep in mind that according to etiquette law, only a few dishes offer this luxury. Surprisingly, asparagus is one of them. Take it by the stalk, (the hard end) and simply bite the head off. Reasons why vary but it seems that when asparagus is served as an hors d'oeuvre, it can be eaten with your fingers, but as a main, it's eaten like all good adult food, with a knife and fork.

Pizza is another that you can, but whether or not you do depends on who you're with and where you are. If you're in doubt, let someone else take the lead. As for corn, one 1960s publication on etiquette states that "No hostess in her right mind would offer this vegetable at a formal dinner." Fortunately things have changed -- top hosts serve corn, women get the vote and slaying your missus for overcooking your steak is now a crime. When it comes to eating with your fingers, and you've got no idea, look at what it's served with -- if you get a knife and fork, it's probably best you use it.

How do you remove an olive pip from your mouth?

The same way you remove a rogue pubic hair -- subtly and with your fingers. Look there's no need to leave the room every time you gotta bin an olive pip but it can be a little awkward if you're standing around in the company of others trying to maintain polite conversation while sifting 'round your mouth for a pip.

Along with your olive, try and get your hands on a napkin, lift it to your mouth and with a quick sigh, drop it in. Often there may be a little dish for you to put the pips in anyway. But just make sure that's what it is -- you don't want Nana putting her cup of tea back into a saucer full of your soggy, chewed olive pips, eh? And no matter what you're trying to dispose of, leave the plants alone.

Can you take your mobile to dinner?

That mobile phones are even rude at the dinner table may come as a surprise to some and just plain horrify the rest. But for our etiquette expert Kylie Carlson, it's a "big no-no." The big problem seems to be how selfish you can be when you're on one. Explains Kylie, "When someone is on a call, conversation stops, no one else wants to talk for fear of interrupting, but they don't want to be all quiet and look like they're eavesdropping."

If you're waiting for an urgent phone call while you're having lunch, it's quite acceptable to give your phone to the MD and ask him or her to alert you when the call comes in. This way, you can excuse yourself from the table and take the call without disrupting everyone else. As not all of us dine in such establishments, you can always have it on vibrate so you know when it's ringing without alerting the whole restaurant. But there's still the option of having to answer it and no matter how well you package it, you're still interrupting a conversation with someone else to have one with another. Solution? "I tell them switch it over to message bank or just don't take it at all."

Tell someone they've got food on their face?

This doesn't usually apply to someone you know well -- that's just a case of laughing, pointing and mocking them until they've gotten the idea. But for those you're not so comfortable with, just make a little eye contact and indicate where the leftover food sits on their face by wiping or gesturing on your own. But make it swift: eye contact, food, wipe, smile. The aim is to get them to clean up their face, not to make the whole group think they're grubby.

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