Thoughtful hosts are those who make sure the dishes they serve pose no particular difficulties for diners. That said, you may still find yourself on unfamiliar territory this holiday season when it comes to certain foods.
Here are a few handy guidelines given by Marjabelle Young Stewart in her book "Commonsense Etiquette" (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95).
Artichokes. Beginning at the outside, pull off a leaf with your fingers. Dip the meatier end into butter or a sauce if one is provided. Place the end between your teeth and pull it forward, then set the inedible portion of the leaf on the edge of your plate.
When the leaves become too small to eat comfortably, or when you see the fuzzy choke, remove both using a knife or spoon, and set them aside. Quarter the heart using your knife and fork. Then dip the pieces in the butter or sauce.
Caviar. Should you be fortunate enough to be served this treat, take a small portion on your plate with toast and garnishes. Spread caviar on the toast and top with lemon juice and garnishes if you wish. Eat in several bites.
Clams, mussels, and oysters. When served in a closed shell, hold the shellfish with one hand and pry open with the other. If it doesn't open easily, set it aside - it probably isn't good.
Break off the half shell or open it wide as you would a book. Reach inside with your fingers and pick up the clam, mussel, or oyster by the neck. Put it in your mouth and swallow.
When shellfish is served on the half shell, eat it with a seafood fork.
Crudits. Pick up one piece of vegetable at a time and plunge gently into the dip or sauce. Take it to your mouth at once; avoid waving it around while talking. And don't double dip.
Garnish. If it's edible, feel free to use your fingers. You may eat appealing herbs such as parsley, as well as fruit, vegetable, and flower garnishes.
Lobster. You won't encounter whole lobster at a formal dinner since it is eaten with the hands.
To eat, start by twisting off the claws. Crack each with a nutcracker. Remove the meat with a fork or pick. Next, break off the tail. Remove its meat using your hands to straighten the tail and your fork to release the meat.
Twist off the legs and suck out the meat gently. Break the body in half lengthwise. Use a fork to reach small pieces of meat in the body and, if you wish, to eat the tomalley (liver) and roe (eggs).
Shellfish stew. For bouillabaisse and other shellfish soups, use your knife and fork to eat pieces of fish and lobster. Eat any shellfish in the shell with a fork, and use a soup spoon for the broth.
Shrimp. Eat shrimp cocktail with a seafood fork. If the shrimp are too large to eat in one respectable bite, eat from the fork in two or three bites. Large butterfly shrimp are usually eaten with the fingers, held by the tail.
Snails. If they're served in the shell, pick up with tongs and place in one hand. Remove the snail (escargot) with an oyster fork using your other hand. You may drink the juices from the shell if you wish.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society