`...Manners may in Seven Words be found: Forget Yourself and Think of Those Around.'
- Arthur Guiterman
WRITING a book on etiquette wasn't something Craig Claiborne deliberately set out to do; "It just happened to come along."
"Some of the things I think that people tend to ignore were so conspicuous in my mind that I thought [they] should be in print," says the longtime restaurant critic, food writer, and cookbook author.
Mr. Claiborne's book "Elements of Etiquette, A Guide to Table Manners in an Imperfect World," serves as a delightful adviser to social conduct, from the correct way to respond to an invitation or set a table to how much to tip a waiter or how to gracefully exit a party.
With his elegance-meets-wit writing style, Claiborne updates etiquette for the 1990s. Sprinkled throughout the book are quotations from well-known figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Johnson. He reveals the proper way to eat sushi; deems cellular phones "woefully out of place" in restaurants. Same with sunglasses: "Do we have Hollywood or New York City to thank for the affectation of wearing sunglasses indoors? And after the sun has set as well! ... Please, barring a room extraordinarily overl it, do not indulge in this phony excess...."
During the course of an hour-long interview in his New York apartment, a "once-a-week-hop" from his home in East Hampton, N.Y., Claiborne talked about etiquette with much of the same humor he uses in his writing. In person, one is treated to his occasional laugh and the traces of a Mississippi accent.
"Good manners are common sense," Claiborne says simply. If you respect the people in the same room with you, you use good manners.
Claiborne's command of the subject comes from many years' experience as a guest, a host, and one of the premier and best-known food writers in America - including 35 years with the New York Times.
He received what he considers excellent training at the Ecole Hoteliere, the professional school of the Swiss Hotel Keepers' Association in Lausanne.
But even further back, Claiborne's experience in learning the art of manners started in a way to which most of us can relate: mother's teaching.
"I was brought up in a fairly strict Southern household, and my mother thought she was quite an aristocrat, quite a lady in Mississippi. And she would, of course - she had three children - correct us frequently. She was not mean, but she could give you a look [if you misbehaved] - the most withering look in all the world - and brother, you would not," he says, pausing to let out a chuckle, "you would not repeat it."
Claiborne describes himself as a "born disciplinarian," a "semi- do-gooder" (he's always liked sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm about food), and someone who has become somewhat of a "curmudgeon." "I don't apologize," he says, then smiles.
The subject turns to pet peeves."There's nothing that irritates me more in my own home than someone who would put a beverage glass down on a fine volume, to treat it like a coaster," he says. "I think that is my biggest peeve in life." Some others he mentions are: people using cellular phones on airplanes and people playing with food on their plates or holding a knife and fork like "lethal weapons!"
But Claiborne's attention to refinement is hardly a call for the olden days, as some might suppose. "We've grown into a terribly lax age, which has its good points and its bad points," he says. "I think it's better to live within reason in a more relaxed atmosphere than terrible constrictions.... I think it's much saner now that we have learned to relax.
"So much depends on the circumstances in which you find yourself," he says. There are a lot of borderline cases, he says, one of which is smoking in someone's home. Claiborne suggests smokers have the courtesy to ask "Do you mind if I smoke?" before lighting up.
Only once has Claiborne's advice on etiquette been challenged: This particular person argued that one's napkin should be left on one's chair when one leaves the table, instead of casually placing it to the left of the fork, as Claiborne specifies in his book.
"So many of these things that we do - whether we do them or not - they are silent signals," he says. "When we place, as is proper, a knife and fork parallel to each other at the 20 after 12 position.... The waiter takes one look at you and is aware of the fact that you are finished."
At the end of the day, etiquette isn't something to dwell on too much, says Claiborne. "After all," he writes, "a dinner party should ultimately be remembered for its company, food, graciousness, and fun, not for its rules of etiquette."