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On Twirling and Passing 

Eating pasta gracefully

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
Comments
Dear Social Grace,
You recently outlined the correct "twirling" technique for eating pasta (Aug. 30), but you didn't address a problem I'm having quite often as noodle bars pop up all over town. How do you eat long Japanese noodles served in huge bowls of soup? Twirling doesn't work with chopsticks, and most people (including me) look ridiculous with long noodle pieces trailing out of their mouths. Are the rules for eating Asian noodles different from the rules of eating Italian pasta? You have forbidden just biting noodles off and letting the ends fall back into your dish, but that seems to be what many people are doing.

Sincerely,
Udon Lover

Dear Madam,
With a heavy sigh, I am forced to explain that "what many people are doing" is often not very pleasant to look at. No, I'm going to maintain a firm stand here -- some will say I'm being deliberately controversial -- and say that spitting noodles back into your bowl is not to be done.

The Japanese method of eating noodles served in soups is to keep your face relatively close to the bowl and use chopsticks to maneuver a few noodles at a time into your mouth, step by step. You will need to do some slurping to get the noodles into your mouth this way (still, it does not involve spitting noodles back into the soup). And here's where "many people" are, I think, running into trouble: They've learned, correctly, that slurping noises are incorrect at Western tables. However, in many Asian cultures, slurping and sipping noises while eating soup are absolutely correct -- in fact, encouraged.

What does this mean for modern San Franciscans engaged in consuming fusion Asian cuisine at a local noodle bar? It means they have to think. It means they must put at least as much thought into their choice of behavior as into their choice of outfits.

We are constantly called upon to examine our surroundings and make choices about how we should behave. Having good manners relies on paying attention to context. There are a number of factors to examine in this situation: How strongly are you affected by your culture's approval or disapproval of slurping? Do you fear your dining partners will be put off by a slurp? Is the restaurant the type of Asian-theme restaurant that is slurp-appropriate? And why not just have the tempura instead?

The answers to these questions will dictate your behavior, but answering them is no harder than answering, "Does this shirt go with these pants?" Me, I've eaten at my share of noodle bars, and it's been my experience that noodle soups are usually served with chopsticks and a large porcelain spoon. I haven't had too much trouble using these utensils in concert to create a manageable mouthful, without troubling noodle pieces left to dangle or slurp.

Dear Social Grace,
Regarding your answer to Basta Pasta, I was reminded of a great article (by Corby Kummer) on the subject of pasta in the July 1986
Atlantic Monthly. Here's a quote: "Italians say never break long pasta as you add it [to the pot] -- you should learn to eat it like a man. This means not twirling it against a spoon, a practice fit only for milquetoasts, but instead securing two or three strands with a fork and twirling them against the edge of a plate. This is accomplished more easily in the wide, shallow soup bowls in which Italians serve pasta, but it is quite possible to do on a flat plate. There will be dangling ends. Accept them." So there you go. I love your column. Keep up the good work!

Dave Bolick

Dear Mr. Bolick,
Thank you for your letter and for sending me a copy of this article -- it was a fascinating read. I enjoyed the above excerpt, and I'm going to ignore that milquetoast remark (anyway, I've been called far worse). We can't all eat as lustily as the Italians Mr. Kummer describes (many people find twirling against the side of a dish, rather than a soup spoon, to be difficult, but it is perfectly polite). As for dangling ends: I agree that they must be accepted and dealt with (that is, moved into the mouth as quickly as possible) -- after we've made our valiant efforts to avoid them in the first place.

Dear Social Grace,
I have a friend who thinks nothing of reaching for a breadbasket that's directly on the other side of his tablemate, who, unfortunately, is often me. Suddenly having someone's arm inches in front of one's face is unsettling (to say the least). I chided this friend in front of others -- bad enough! -- the first time he did this. The next time he did it, I lost it a little, yanking the bread out of his hand and insisting that he say, "Please pass the bread." I know I should've taken him aside in private and explained how rude his habit is, but, well, like I say, I lost it a little. He got over it in any case.

Social Grace, what, in your opinion, is the appropriate reaction in such a situation? It's no big deal to ignore a friend, say, using his thumb to push food onto his fork, but what can I do when the infraction requires me to back up in my seat to avoid contact with a reaching arm? On one hand I figure I'm doing him a favor by correcting him, but on the other, I'm not comfortable treating adults like 5-year-old children. Thank you.

Sign me,
Trying to Help

Dear Trying Sir,
You know how Social Grace hates to lecture, but we here at the central office really must insist that there is to be no yanking of food from our friends' hands at the dinner table. Goodness gracious. It's a wonder your little dinner party didn't devolve into a complete brawl. Eating is a terribly violent activity; think of the cutting, biting, spearing -- and, if you're a meat eater, killing -- that accompanies a meal. Much of what we consider good table manners has roots in making sure that nobody gets hurt while dining together. Historically, sharing a meal was an activity fraught with danger and high tensions -- which helps explain why an arm suddenly looming across your plate and near your person is so upsetting.

Again, gentlepeople: Correcting another person's table manners assumes a very intimate (or perhaps a supervisory) relationship. But you can try to help your friend -- in an indirect, less abusive fashion. In your situation, I might have tried the following phrases (with accompanying actions): "Here, Reginald, let me get the bread for you." "I'm sorry, Reginald, did you want the bread? Let me pass it." "Here I am prattling away, and you've been waiting for the bread. I'm sorry; here it is." And so on. You may have to repeat these phrases a few times for results, and if they don't have an effect, maybe it's time to rethink the nature of your friendship with Reginald. Maybe it would be better to spend time doing things that didn't involve bread at all.

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Social Grace

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