Hosting -- or even attending -- your first dinner party can be daunting. When I was a child, my mom always threatened to send me to finishing school because I ate with my hands and tried to cut my steak with a butter knife. I like to think that my freshman year of college (mostly) changed that behavior. As with all athletes at the University of Miami, I was required to attend an etiquette class/dinner.
The class served as a "refresher" for athletes in anticipation of boosters taking us out for a fancy meal. Regardless of reasons and circumstance, I found the class fascinating and it definitely prepared me for dinner parties and more awkward occasions -- like lunchtime interviews.
Etiquette is BIG in the south. Girls in Birmingham have "coming out" parties and deb balls. I'm just happy to make it through a meal without pulling a Pretty Woman/escargot scene.
For those of you who are like me and need some guidance, take note. Here are the etiquette rules that aren't going out of style anytime soon:
1. Bring your host or hostess a small gift
I always like to ask if I can bring something like a a side dish or dessert. If they say no, I like to still bring a bottle of wine, flowers, or a thank you note.
2. RSVP and show up on time
As someone who frequently throws dinner parties, this is probably my BIGGEST pet peeve. I'm a planner. I need to know how many places I'm setting and how many people I'm cooking for.
Also, it's okay to show up fashionably late to the bar, but it is not cool to be late for a dinner party. Just don't do it, k?
3. Properly setting a table is a (dying) art. Learn it.
There are different place settings for different meals. This chart is a great little guide for most of the basic styles. If you don't have this chart on you, just remember BMW -- Bread plate, Main plate, Water glass-- from left to right.
4. Treat salt and pepper like they're married
Blue's Clues was on to something -- salt and pepper are "married". That means that they should always be passed together, even if little Johnny only asks for the salt.
S&P sidebar: ALWAYS taste your food before seasoning it. It's rumored that Henry Ford would take potential executives to dinner and perform a "salt test". If the person salted their food before trying it, he wouldn't hire them.
5. Silverware symbolism is a thing
As a general rule, start from the outside and work your way in after each course. Contrary to popular belief, eating with your hands isn't always rude. So what are acceptable "finger foods"? Here's the comprehensive list:
Corn on the cob
Fruits with stems
To show that you're done eating, place your knife and fork at the 11 o'clock and 5 o'clock positions on your plate like so:
6. Toast with purpose
When you or someone else makes a toast, clink your glasses and look the other drinker directly in the eye. This is my favorite rule because it forces you to get intimate with your fellow dinner mates. After all, shouldn't a meal be social?
7. Be nice or leave
I had a newswriting professor who was a stickler for etiquette. She wouldn't let the guys wear hats in class and ladies were allowed one bad hair day a semester. Yes, really.
At the end of the term, she brought in lunch for the class and we had an etiquette lesson. She said that one of the most important rules of etiquette is to never, ever correct someone on their behavior at the table.
The moral of the story? Be a gracious guest and be a gracious host. The rest comes easy (with a little practice).