How do you gracefully handle eating from a plate of greasy, complicated hors d'oeuvres and holding a glass of cheap white wine at the same time? And how, then, do you react when the next boring windbag who wants to make your acquaintance comes over and tries to shake your hand? I won't even mention the fact that I'm clutching my purse between my knees and have my coat folded over my forearm, just to handle the plate and the glass.
Dear No-Hands Madam,
The problem you present is multifaceted, so we'll come at it from a few angles. The first involves you adjusting your attitude a bit. As I'm quite familiar with the pitfalls of popularity and a busy social calendar, I'd suggest that if these cocktail parties are such a trial for you, consider staying away from them altogether. Indeed, why socialize at all with people you can't trust not to steal your coat? But if you must attend these events, you owe it to your hosts to make an effort to have a good time. If the food is too greasy and unpleasant for you, madam, don't eat it. That might go a little way toward improving your outlook -- and it will leave a hand free to greet any "boring windbag" who has the misfortune of falling into your path.
Another angle we'll consider is the responsibility of hosts. The food at a cocktail party should not be of a sort that needs a plate or silver -- unless it's a cocktail buffet, at which there are not only plates and utensils but also tables at which people may sit and eat. If people must stand and eat, the cocktail-party food should be manageable with nothing more than fingers and a napkin. Social Grace certainly understands the temptation to be experimental with food at a cocktail party, but "experimental" should not translate to "complicated."
As you may have guessed, Social Grace has become pretty good at cocktail parties (the difference between you and me is that I enjoy them immensely). If cocktail parties were an Olympic sport, I'd be ineligible as a professional. My secret: One thing at a time. If I have a drink in my hand, I either finish it or find a place to let it rest before diving into the crudités. If I'm enjoying miniature egg rolls, I finish them and wipe my fingers on a napkin before asking that nice bartender for my next martini.
Dear Social Grace,
Is it rude to eat the garnish out of a mixed drink? My mother recently admonished me for eating the olives out of my martini, which took me by surprise -- I never even guessed that they might not be for eating.
Dear Mr. Burney,
If your run-of-the-mill cocktail party can be difficult, cocktails with parents can be nigh on impossible. But never fear: Edible garnishes (I hope it's safe to leave lemon peels and the like out of this conversation) are, in fact, intended to be eaten -- or not, as is the cocktail imbiber's wish. If you were chastised for doing so, perhaps it was not that you ate your martini olives but that you did so in a way that was unpleasant to behold.
Here are some guidelines. Garnishes fastened to a toothpick should be eaten off of that toothpick. If the garnishes float unanchored, they should not be eaten until enough liquid has been drunk that one may retrieve them without wetting one's fingers. People -- especially our dear mothers -- do not want to see us splashing about in our cocktails.
Dear Social Grace,
I was taught that at a very formal dinner, the salad course should come after the main course. A friend of mine calls this an affectation. My etiquette book says I'm right, but almost every restaurant I've been to (in the U.S.) proves me wrong. What do you say?
Via the Internet
Dear Madam or Sir,
The key phrase in your letter is "very formal." If you are throwing a very formal dinner party -- the whole deal, with engraved or handwritten invitations, place cards, a soup course, a fish course, and everything -- the salad course should certainly follow the entree. This setup is not at all affected -- unless you'd argue that the very idea of a formal dinner is affected, in which case this letter will hold little interest for you. Some of the rituals around formal dining may seem arbitrary from the outside, but they do define the event and are part of the fun. If you don't want to follow the rules, that's fine: Casual dinners are great, too. Just as it does not take a white dress to make a lovely wedding, it does not take a cheese course and two kinds of wine to make a wonderful dinner.
Most restaurants do not serve the salad course after the entree because most restaurants do not serve very formal meals. Eating salad before the main course -- probably a concession to efficiency -- is what most people are accustomed to. If you were to serve salad after the fried chicken at your next casual dinner, your guests might find it odd -- even a little affected. But then, informal means not having to apologize for playing with the rules a little bit.