Artichoke Etiquette, or Finding Romance in a Bowl Full of Thistles

YOU might wonder what artichokes have to do with etiquette.

Well, Marjabelle Young Stewart knows.

The jury is out, says the etiquette advisor, looking over several dishes of lovely food. ``You must use your fingers to eat artichoke. You must.''

But wait, there's more.

``The artichoke is such a romantic food. It is such a flirtatious food,'' says Ms. Stewart in a sweet voice bordering on a whisper.

She demonstrates by picking off a leaf, sliding it through her teeth ever so slowly, and saying, coyly, ``How have you been?''

What seems to be an intimidating, cumbersome appetizer has just been charmed into being a genteel vegetabeel.

Stewart goes on to tell the story of how her son, a Navy pilot, hid an engagement ring in an artichoke. (His sweetheart said ``yes,'' and artichokes will be served at their wedding.)

Romance, Stewart declares, is back.

As an etiquette expert, Stewart has been teaching manners and social graces for more than 30 years. She is the author of 17 books ranging from ``White Gloves and Party Manners'' to the most recent ``Executive Etiquette In the New Workplace'' (with Marian Faux, St. Martin's Press, $23).

In ``Executive Etiquette,'' Stewart devotes a section to tricky foods, assuring readers that the way they eat at the table is a big part of their image - professional and social.

In an interview, Stewart uses the artichoke as a springboard to talk about table manners.

Whether it's the business lunch or weekend entertaining, people are putting together wonderful feasts of various foods, and there is the need to know how to dine properly, Stewart says.

Not that the need has changed all that much in the past 30 years, but the attitude has, she says. These days, learning all the little ``traffic rules'' isn't something to roll your eyes about.

``By choice, it's back, not by someone shaking their finger and saying, `Mind your manners.' It is education,'' Stewart says.

There is a big return to ceremonies of life, Stewart explains. ``It might be the scattering of the families, but when they get together for family reunions, school reunions, weddings, anniversaries; this is not potluck. This is the video, the receiving line, the seated tables, the proper toast. There's a whole beautiful style coming along with the mass education.'' Social grace is not a replacement for character - but obviously a reflection, she says.

Those most searching out social-grace education are college students, Stewart says; they are her biggest audience. On their minds: landing a job.

Students say ``I know when they take me out for that first job interview, they're not entertaining me, they're looking me over,'' Stewart says. ``So we do the handshake; we do the table manners; we do the conversation; and we do the dining....

``Polish brings profit,'' she says, pronouncing her ``p'' with a delicate puff.

AFTER seminars, Stewart hears stories of college students going home on break and ``Mom sees a dim light at the end of the tunnel because she hears: `Mother, let me get the chair. Mother, please sit down, I'll get that for you.' Again, it's their joy of doing it, not someone shaking their finger at them and saying, `For Pete's sake, don't you have any manners?' ''

Power lunch or family brunch, table manners are liberating, Stewart maintains. ``You know what to do with all the tools, so you can concentrate and listen, and you're not going `uaahaaa, what do I do now?' ''

If you don't know what to do, Stewart says, simply ask: `` `I've never eaten that before, may I watch you?' It's much better than having to be under pressure.''

Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, she says, ``Manners are a happy way of doing things.''

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