IN all of its fastidiously prepared splendor, the elite gourmet meal was an etiquette mine field. Clams and oysters lurked on the canapes. The soup boasted a floating garlic crouton. The hard rolls guaranteed crumb dunes, and the salad sported plump cherry tomatoes and unpitted green olives atop lettuce leaves the size of leprechaun blankets.
The chicken hung on the bone, the angel hair pasta needed untangling, and the baked apple necessitated attack strategy second only to that of the Normandy Invasion.
Twelve children - nibbling, not wolfing; sipping, not slurping; cutting, not fingering - attended a crash course in etiquette offered at the Leathercoat, a popular gourmet restaurant nestled deep in the fox-hunting country that surrounds The Plains, Va.
Dauntlessly guiding them through the how-tos was Forrest Winquest, a manners pro steeped in the virtues of Amy Vanderbilt. Ms. Winquest markets the social graces through her Maryland firm know as the Executive Manner.
Contributing to what is becoming a popular trend, Winquest ushers the budding adolescent in need of polish or the PR-conscious adult ascending into ``yuppiedom.''
Many adults would quake at the thought of teaching table manners to a roomful of boys and girls between 7 and 12. The five boys looked like they'd rather be somewhere else - anywhere but at a fancy restaurant learning social graces.
``Hello. My name is Peachy. It's nice to meet you, Ms. Winquest.''
Introductions focused on firm handshakes, proper stance, and direct eye contact as Winquest, a petite brunette, made the rounds, correcting and commending the children's efforts.
How-do-you-dos accomplished, the group moved to a table displaying canape trays and ice water.
```Yuck, it's disgusting!' is what a grown-up does not want to hear if you don't like something,'' Winquest explains, referring to the oysters and clams within the miniature tartlike hors d'oeuvres.
``If the hors d'oeuvres tray is passed to you, simply say, `I don't care for any, thank you.'''
Peter, tired of standing so long, heaved a sigh of relief when time came to move into the dining room. Ryan did, too, when Winquest assured the boys they wouldn't have to touch the girls when seating them at their places.
Along came the tomato and Parmesan soup, accompanied by a hard roll. The trick was to get the arms up, over the soup, to break the roll into bite-size pieces, leaving no crumbs on the tablecloth. Simple, right?
``My thumb's stuck,'' cries Peachy, realizing the innocuous-looking hard roll was carnivorous in nature.
``It's like a rock,'' says Peter, gnawing the roll.
``It would help if you had a few more teeth, wouldn't it?'' replies Winquest, smiling.
Next, the soup. Dip the spoon into the soup. Bring it to the lips, and gently tip the contents into the mouth. No need to slurp.
Now for the salad. The children learned to pierce and slice the cherry tomatoes. Not one tomato exploded. Each lettuce leaf folded neatly into a ``little packet,'' and each olive pit arrived at its proper destination.
With due respect to ``Mabel, Mabel,'' there are times when elbows can go on the table. ``Which is when?'' asks Winquest.
``When no one's looking!'' volunteers Andrew, grinning ear to ear. Giggles erupted.
The gesture is taboo at formal dinners, but it's OK ``at formal gatherings between courses'' or while ``resting,'' explains Winquest, after gently reminding Andrew to raise his hand when he wanted to speak.
Learning to negotiate the main course was a cinch for the youngsters. In fact, Winquest later said she wished the angel-hair pasta had been more difficult.
Although it was prepared to perfection, ``I really wanted [slippery] spaghetti'' that required more skill to eat. Nevertheless, she got the point across: Spaghetti should not be sucked up like a retractable vacuum cleaner cord. Rather it should be twirled on the side of the plate with stray ends cut with the knife.
``Now the apple they paid attention to,'' says Winquest. The attack strategy called for unfamiliar weapons, namely a dessert fork and spoon set above the place setting rather than to its side.
``The children had no idea how to eat it, so they were fascinated enough to do it the right way. I was really impressed,'' comments Winquest of the children's performance and enthusiasm.
Learning etiquette and table manners in ``a more neutral situation'' is one of Winquest's selling points. Not only does it ``make the parents' job a lot easier, but it makes the whole attitude of the child toward the subject more friendly,'' she says.
``That is a good thing in itself, because in the home, whenever you are trying to direct your child, there can be a lot of reticence,'' Winquest says.
She should know - she has two sons, one 12 and the other 14.
``A third-party influence is sometimes a good thing,'' replies Peter's father when asked why he enrolled his seven-year-old. It was an opportunity to improve his table manners in a more structured environment along with his peers, he adds.
After the seminar, Lillie's mother says she and her husband's rationale was on the mark.
``We thought it would be good for her self-esteem,'' she remarks. Lillie also relished playing grown-up, dining with her friends.
One by one, everyone said goodbye to the hostess. Firm of hand, direct of eye, the boys and girls filed by, shook her hand, and said, ``Thank you, Ms. Winquest. I had a very nice time.''
Andrew lingered behind the others.
Floored by the child's sincerity and sensitivity, Forrest Winquest beamed when he asked, ``Was I too much trouble for you?''