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EAT AND STAY NEAT: Eating Without Looking--or Making--a Mess!

by Stephanie Pieck, Schenectady, New York

EDITOR'S NOTE: In response to reader requests, we've been searching for some time for a confident take on eating in public with little or no sight. Stephanie Pieck is called upon to put her table manners on display regularly as a blind music teacher and solo performer. This article contains the tips and principles which have helped her to approach this challenge with poise and confidence. Others may have different or opposing views on some of these matters, and their input would be welcome.

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Maybe we're becoming a fast food nation, a grab-and-go society--but so far, thank goodness, we haven't completely abandoned the use of silverware and napkins. For blind or visually impaired diners, it can be tricky getting food to go (or stay) where you want it to. Most of the time, touching your food won't be a suitable option--although there are plenty of exceptions, like chicken barbecues, ice cream cones, pizza, burgers, or sandwiches.

Like so much else, practice is a great way to get better at table techniques. If you're eating at home, you can set aside a whole mealtime--or part of one--and challenge yourself to try serving, cutting, and eating without touching your food. Here are a few hints and suggestions to get you started. (Sorry, all you Asian food lovers: I am terrible at using chopsticks and haven't included them in this article!)

Handles, Tines, and Blades

I usually hold the fork in the left (which happens to be my dominant) hand--knives and spoons in the right. The fork is used to spear food for eating, or to hold food in place while cutting.

If you're using the fork to keep something still, start with the tines pointed away from you, facing downward. Make a fist around the handle, leaving a little bit of the handle sticking out at the end. Then, extend your index finger so it lies against the fork's handle, pointing toward the tines. The same hand position is used to hold the knife, except that it's done with the right hand. (More on cutting later.)

This is how I pick up and hold a fork when cutting is not involved: Lay the fork on a table, tines pointed up, handle toward you. Position your left hand, palm up, fingers together, so that there is a slight cup to your palm. Keeping your fingers close together--no space between--pick up the fork so that the handle is resting between the index and middle fingers. Place your thumb on top of the handle to hold the fork in place. The end of the handle should be sticking out of the little hole formed by your thumb and index finger. Try to keep your hand as relaxed as possible; the fork is held in place by the fingertips only. (I hold the spoon the same way, using the right hand.) Now you're ready to eat!

Use your fork to explore the food on your plate--where is it, what is it, and how much is there of it? Find the edge of the plate with your right hand, and notice how big the plate is. Then, lightly run the back of your fork over the items on the plate--you can also tap gently on them--to discover how close things are to the edge of the plate, whether there are bones in a piece of meat, and all kinds of other helpful information. Once you've gotten oriented, you can turn the plate so that items needing to be cut are closest to you.

Explore the item that needs cutting. Important things to know are how big it is and what shape it is, because round objects tend to roll when cut and can end up in very unwelcome places!

For meat with bones, try to cut parallel to a bone, with the grain of the meat. This will make it easier to slice off a piece. Start at the edge closest to you. If that edge happens to be a bone, use your fork and knife to reposition the meat so that the bone is away from you. Use the back of your fork to find the edge of the meat, and stab into the meat just shy of the edge. Place your knife, blade down, at a 90-degree angle to the tines of your fork so that the blade forms the top of a print letter "T," with the fork handle forming the long, vertical upright portion of the letter. Cut using the fork tines as a guide--they'll make a scraping sound and feel like metal grating on metal, so you'll know you're in the right spot. Keep the knife blade as flat as possible, and try to cut the full length of the meat. You'll know you're through when you stop feeling soft stuff under the blade and get to the hard plate (except if you're using paper plates, of course).

Once you've gotten the piece of meat cut, turn your fork over and pick it up. If the piece is much larger than your fork, you probably won't be able to fit it in your mouth, so put it back and cut it into smaller pieces. Often, the best way to do this is to put the blade of your knife between the tines of the fork and cut there. But this doesn't always work, especially if the knife is one of those humongous steak knives they give you at steakhouses that are so thick you could probably use them to hack through a jungle!

Certain types of meat--whole chickens, small game birds, rabbit, fish--are persnickety to cut because of all the intricate bones. We'd all certainly love to be able to do as much for ourselves, by ourselves, as we can. But there's nothing wrong (in most situations) with asking a companion to help you cut something.

Your knife isn't just for cutting. You can use it, blade side down, to push food onto your fork and to scrape food from the edges of the plate toward the center. (This is a great way to keep your lunch from ending up in your lap.) Since you're not cutting, hold the knife blade a bit at a slant. You can use a spoon as a pusher, too, but in my experience, the knife is easier to control because it can corral more food back onto the safer territories of the plate in one sweep than a spoon can. Scoop items onto the fork and then eat them. While a spoon could arguably be used for this (in my left hand), I almost never do this, only because it's more comfortable for me to use the fork and knife together rather than the spoon and knife.

Of course, we don't do all of our eating in the privacy of our homes. Eventually, we'll have to take our table techniques public. Here are some tips for your next trip to the restaurant.

What's On The Table, and Where Is It?

The way the table is set can give you lots of clues about what kind of restaurant you're in--and how other diners will be behaving! When I was a kid, my mother's first admonition was always, "If there's a tablecloth on the table, you're expected to have good manners!" It's good advice, but it's only a starting point. If you're crowded at a table with so many other guests that there's very little open space between place settings, or if the lighting is too dim to allow you to take advantage of usable vision to get your bearings, you'll have to be a bit creative.

When you first sit down, explore the place setting. Put your hands on the table, about a shoulder-width apart. Generally, this is the amount of real estate you'll be given at a dining table. Notice what's under your hands: Silverware, napkin, plate, etc. Carefully working your way forward and inward, touch what's in front of you. Don't slide your hands along the tabletop, though--you might end up spilling a glass of something if you're not careful! Touch things just long enough to recognize what they are and make a mental note of where they are.

Napkins are migratory. Sometimes, they're on the left side of the place setting; other times, they're folded decoratively and stuffed into a coffee cup! I've even found them lying across the salad plate, wrapped around the silverware. As soon as you find your napkin, you can unfold it and put it where you can easily find it--I usually opt for my lap.

Silverware placement is inconsistent as well. Forks are usually on the left side, but spoons and knives are more prone to wander. The place setting is meant to make a nice first impression. But once you've occupied the chair in front of it, you're the boss and can rearrange it as it suits you. For fancier settings with multiple utensils, always use the fork or spoon on the outside and work your way in. This usually means that you won't keep your silverware between courses--unlike at a diner where, if you give your fork to the server as the salad is cleared, you'll have to ask for a new one before you can eat your dinner!

Be mindful of the water and other beverages. Some restaurants put straws in the water glasses automatically--but not all take the paper off the tops! Some leave the lemon at the bottom of the glass, while others perch it on the side. Before you try pouring your coffee or tea, make sure the cup is right-side up. (Yes, I've forgotten to do this!)

Garnishes are usually somewhat edible, but not always enjoyable. Lemon slices for fish; mint leaves in ice cream sundaes; fancy toothpicks in sandwiches if you are among friends, ask your neighbor if everything on the plate is edible, or if there are any garnishes that need attention. If you're on your own, search for these around the edges of plates, or ask your server about them. Then, deposit them somewhere safe--a bread plate is always a good option.

Restaurants do all kinds of crazy things when it comes to arranging food on a plate. Some pile it high; others treat empty space on the plate around tiny servings as the most beautiful thing. So make sure you check things out with your fork before you start eating, and always work from the edges inward. Taking food from the top of the pile--especially in salads--is also good advice. You want to clear some space on your plate so you can maneuver, so eat the precariously-positioned stuff first.

If you're eating something that only requires a spoon--soup or ice cream, for instance--use your dominant hand to hold the spoon. I'm left-handed, so I hold mine in my left. It's better to be comfortable and neat than to try and follow all the rules and spill on yourself.

What about dessert? Many restaurants serve it with a spoon tucked into the bowl or laid in a beckoning way on the plate. Use the same kind of exploration technique you did at the beginning of the meal to get your bearings--but on a smaller scale. If the dessert is cake or pie, you may get a fork instead of a spoon. Before you take your first bite, find out how big the piece is; whether it's square or wedge-shaped, and what else is on the plate with it (whipped cream, ice cream, fresh berries, etc.). Next, turn the plate so the narrowest portion of the dessert (the pointy end of a wedge) is toward you. Turn your fork sideways so the tines are perpendicular to the plate. Press down into the slice with the side of the fork to cut through it. Then you can either stab or scoop the morsel into your mouth. Some pie crusts can be a bit tricky--they'll shatter more than they slice, or they'll refuse to break into anything smaller. When this happens, you can use the tines of the fork and a knife blade to free the stubborn morsel of dessert as if you were cutting off a small piece of meat.

Ordering From a Menu

If you're very familiar with the restaurant, you might know most of what's offered. But if not, there are a few strategies you can use. This might not seem relevant to table manners, but if you're not confident about cutting meat, you can also use these tips to get a meal you feel comfortable eating in public. After all, you're there to enjoy your meal, not fret about whether you're going to end up with a prime rib in your best friend's pocket.

For computer users, many restaurants have their menus online. When this works, you can browse the options before arriving and know ahead of time what you plan to order.

Otherwise, you might ask your server if there are any specials. Choose one that you feel you can manage. You might ask a companion to read the menu. I usually have a few categories in mind that I know are on most menus--chicken, pasta, salads. That way, I can simply have the person read from those categories, rather than going through the whole menu.

If you're dining alone, ask the server about what's on the menu. I have traveled extensively for my piano career, always alone, and while you're not always going to get the best information, servers are getting paid to serve. If you briefly describe what it is you're hoping to eat, they can often tell you what matches from the menu--or if you're out of luck! If the restaurant is very busy, I don't recommend this. But if you do get a particularly helpful server, remember to tip well.

A Brief Word on Condiments

I hate having to try to figure out whether I've got real or artificial sweetener. I'm also not fond of "mystery jelly," or mistaking salt for sugar. If you're eating alone and can forego the condiments, that's the safest bet. But asking wait staff where particular items are (ketchup, hot sauce, salt, pepper, etc.) is an option, too. In cases where you're with someone or part of a group, always ask rather than hunt around for things. Many restaurants have centerpieces--or lit candles!--and it is better to let someone pass you the pepper than to upend a flaming object onto a table.

Many of our most special occasions revolve around shared meals. This article is by no means comprehensive. But I hope that a few of the ideas in it boost your confidence at the table and encourage you to pursue new adventures in eating, whether you are at your own table, or someone else's.

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