Liz, you never pass!" my older sister Rose used to scold at the dinner table. It was true. During our growing-up years, serving bowls always came to a standstill at my place. I'd fill my own plate and proceed to eat, heedless of whether my siblings had accessed every side dish.
Mealtime back on the farm wasn't quite a free-for-all, but it could be a frenzied affair. Our family of eight murmured grace in unison, then unleashed a torrent of talk. Conveying all the courses around our chrome-legged table contributed to the clamor.
Although Rose was right about my lapses, her standard mealtime beef befuddled me. In the privacy of home, our crew was as likely to stand on chairs as on ceremony.
If someone craved the coleslaw and could reach it by rising out of his seat, he did so, or nudged the guy next to him to hand it over, already. Nor was my brother above yodeling, "Earth to Lizzie! Please pass the peas yet today!"
Rose nevertheless insisted that I should pass everything to everyone, without prompting, before I even thought about tucking into my own tuna casserole.
I countered that by the time I did so, the first person would be calling for seconds, and I'd have to start passing all over again while my own rations grew cold.
"What's the big deal?" I'd protest. "There's always enough to go around." And there was.
On a typical summer evening, we had garden-grown green beans, chilled sliced cucumbers, crunchy hot corn on the cob, onion-scented pot roast, and pitchers of cold milk, from which we'd skim whipping cream to adorn homemade peach pie.
If the gravy ran dry, pats of butter were pressed into service on second helpings of spuds. If we polished off the roast with room to spare, no matter: Dessert awaited.
Yet Rose loved to say that our family needed a giant lazy Susan to compensate for lackadaisical Liz. Because our parents were busy tending the younger kids, she considered herself empowered to teach me etiquette, if only by default.
All right, I'll admit it: Decades later, thanks to her, my deportment is much improved. But she has changed her ways, too.
Over the years, I've noticed that a buffet-line approach has replaced family-style dining at her house.
Instead of passing the potatoes ad infinitum, she parks them on her kitchen counter and passes the people instead. It's a sensible system, even for a household half the size of the one in which we grew up.
I, too, forsook family-style protocol years ago. Nowadays, my husband and I convene across a corner of the kitchen table, within easy reach of our one-pot repasts.
When hosting a larger subset of family, I'll place a tureen on the table and serve everyone at the outset. When entertaining more formally, I transfer the entree - salmon steak, say, or chicken Kiev - straight from pan to garnished plates, which I deliver to guests' places with a restaurant-server's flourish.
I may never completely overcome my oblivious modus operandi when dining family style. But I've cultivated courtesy in other areas of life.
Rose no longer finds fault with my manners; these days, we're friends. Perhaps she's noticed that my old ineptitude at passing actually serves me well when I'm away from the table.
When assigned an unsavory task, I don't hand it off, even if my own plate looks full. When offered hot gossip, I've learned to let it sit and grow cold. The same goes for blame; no buck-passing is allowed at my house. At the feast of daily life, I try to take modest portions of everything, then eat all I take, confident that if others do, too, we'll all get our fair share.
Speaking of which, last Thanksgiving our extended family convened for the traditional holiday dinner. Midway through the meal, I scanned our groaning board for the missing cranberries and finally spied them, bogged down (as it were) next to ... Rose!
Snagging her attention, I mouthed the one-word interrogative, "Cranberries?" as if I wished merely to confirm their identity.
A faint namesake blush colored her features as she handed the dish across the table. I thanked her and helped myself. Then, as I passed to my right, I caught her eye again and winked. I like to think that in that moment, she forgave me a multitude of missed passes.