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76th Sort

Sorting through the truth and table etiquette.

by Dear Jon
August 23, 2001

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76th Sort_Dear Jon-Sorting through the truth and table etiquette. Dear Readers:

Since I stunned you on Monday by actually not writing anything, I have gotten many letters. I have enough for columns for today, Monday, and Thursday. But the trick is, that readers keep writing, so that we are never at risk again. I will not necessarily answer everything I get in the order it comes in. Maybe I will put YOURS at the head of the line!


Dear Jon,

Do the sorts that contain no actual letters count as sorts?

Sort counter

Dear Sort,

Yes and no. To get this program started, I submitted articles to the Webmaster containing only letters I had written to myself. I named them "First Sort," "Second Sort," because I submitted a bunch at the same time and wanted to signify the order for their publication. The Webmaster, naturally, thought I intended this utilitarian tool to be the titles for the columns. The Webmaster forgot that, in journalism, copy writers only provide "working titles" for their pieces, while the copy editors come up with the headlines and captions for actual publication. So we have been saddled with this weenie captioning process, of which I lost count sometime before Christmas. However, Monday's "non-article" does not count as a "sort."

[The Webmaster clarifies:
What Dear Jon left out is that to this day he does not use the official online form for submitting articles. That form includes a field for the AUTHOR to supply his or her own title. The one time that he DID manage to use the form, he supplied a non-numerical title, which indicated to me that he wanted to abandon the numbered sort titles. He neglected to tell me that he simply forgot what sort number he was on and "didn't have time to look it up." He confessed this to me only two weeks ago. So now we're back to numerical sorts because I don't have time to think up titles for other people!]


Dear Jon,

I think your column is getting too literary for an Advice Column. I think you should offer some practical advice, instead of comic strip advice, on--like--Table Manners.

Is there a polite way to eat corn-on-the-cob? Is it polite to eat pizza without a fork? And if so, what is proper for eating "pizza" in English, that is, pie? Should I serve guests a beverage in a can? or pour it into a glass? or give the guest a can and a glass of ice?

Thank you in advance for your advice.

Looong way from Martha Stewart

Dear Martha,

Literary questions get literary answers. Etiquette questions get etiquette answers.

Is there a polite way to eat corn on the cob? No.

However, there is a polite way to serve corn on the cob. They have cob handles which you can stab into both ends, so that you do not burn your fingers to peeling as you pick up the freshly boiled ear. Of course, I never heard of such a thing until long after I moved away from Nebraska, where people were eating corn with their bare hands all the time. That may be okay for folks with "worker" hands, who have developed calluses. I have always had "white collar hands," which are good for keyboards and more delicate work, such as removing staples from thick documents, and holding books down on the photocopier glass. Nothing is more irritating than breaking a nail when you're trying to remove the cellophane wrapper from the "Post-it" notes package. Anyway, a working man like me likes to sit down to a square meal, so the cob handles are a must.

For the same reason, I eat pizza with a fork. On the whole, I tend to avoid picking up things that are hot, sharp, or heavy. I do better in the big city than on the farm, as you can tell.

One tip on pizzas, though. Pizzas trap heat beneath the cheese. I like to use my fork to make several cuts in my slice, so that the trapped heat can escape before I put the pizza in my mouth. The big clue, for pizza or anything else, is that food which is emitting visible clouds of steam, or would emit such steam if you cut into it, is too hot to eat, unless you like the taste and texture of peeling skin on the roof of your mouth for the next three days.

After the pizza is sufficiently cooled, I eat it with my bare hands. This is not true for other pies, which I eat with a fork because that is what I have observed everyone else doing. Generally it is considered impolite to try to fit a whole piece of any kind of pie into your mouth all at once. People do not do this, usually, unless they are in same-sex groups and celebrating the end of league play.

Most experts on manners, I would assume, would tell you that any beverage that comes from a can is, already, a breach of etiquette. You are supposed to squeeze your own oranges and brew your own tea. The only acceptable beer should come in the kinds of brands that only appear in bottles with labels that are decorated with portraits or landscapes. Pop should be purchased in two-liter bottles (which is more cost-effective anyway) so that community can be built through sharing. Canned drinks isolate people from each other. Their can becomes their own, private, self-contained stash. Also, some people drop cigarette butts through the opening, which can lead to grave misunderstanding when someone else forgets where they had set down their Sprite. Cold drinks are always to be served in tall, chilled glasses. Ice does not necessarily need to be offered (nobody puts ice in beer. How come?) because the host naturally wants to offer the undiluted beverage that has been fresh-squeezed and brewed. However, it is not necessarily impolite to ask for ice (except for beer. How come?) and it should always be on hand.

Come to think of it, why doesn't wine come in a can?

Anyway, canned beverages are good peace-makers between rival siblings (she got more than I did!). It is appropriate to suspend beverage etiquette within families, just as many other rules of etiquette are suspended.

For example, in a family setting, a child can simply say, "I don't like this." Strict parents will force the child to eat whatever that is, creating the double trauma: first, that the child is essentially powerless to choose, thereby creating dependency and reducing personal responsibility; second, that food is the avenue to acceptance, leading to future food addictions, weight gain, and unhealthy obsessions.

Stupid parents, on the other hand, will not rest until that child's dietary whims are met for the evening, thereby spoiling the child by creating an environment of easy wish-fulfillment, while tearing down the boundaries of authority that structure a healthy child's self-esteem.

Astute parents will accept that the child does not like what has been offered for dinner, and the child will have a range of empowering choices. First, the child can be polite and eat what is offered until the hunger is satisfied, learning a valuable discipline of etiquette beyond family boundaries. Second, the child can fix an alternative meal based on what is available in the house. (Money for McDonald's is a Stupid Parent's alternative, not an Astute Parent's alternative.) Third, the child can choose not to eat, but remain in fellowship at the dinner table, included as one of the family. This teaches the child that every choice has its consequences.

However, polite company prevents the child from saying "I don't like this." Polite company is no place to learn life's lessons; polite company is the place to be polite. So the child learns, in polite company, to hide what is served. In polite company, most adults are as skilled at hiding unappetizing food as they are at hiding their opinions. Often, in polite company, the host will provide huge napkins. This is a godsend for the picky eater, who, after messing up various utensils and scattering the portions around, can wipe his mouth and then spread the napkin across the plate. This precludes any offer of seconds, because no polite host would think of dropping more food on top of a napkin.

Sometimes appetizers and desserts are not served at the dining room table. Sometimes they are served in parlors where people are seated on sofas and easy chairs. Even here, the picky eater finds refuge. It is important that picky-eaters sit in the room's corners. When dessert is served, simply remove the date bar from the plate, palm it in the dessert napkin in the opposite hand as you perform a pantomime of taking a bite, and then deposit the dessert on the floor between the book-shelf and the plant. Then set the empty plate and napkin on the coffee table. Or you can actually hide the coconut macaroon in the plant, if the soil-bed is large enough and the leaves provide cover. One fail-safe, of course, is to excuse oneself to the bathroom, where the toilet awaits the thumb-sized serving of walnut-encrusted homemade fudge. Many a host's bathroom garbage can has become the resting place for oatmeal raisin cookies.

When the interminable evening finally ends, you can stop at McDonald's on your way home.

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