Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mable, Mable, Sweet and Able...

"The last heirloom tomatoes" with basil
and mozzarella. 
"Keep your elbows off the table!"
How many times have we heard this chant as we sat in a summer camp dining hall or junior high cafeteria? According to Miriam and Alice, it's still considered a terrible faux-pas to put your elbows on a dining table, and kids, I guess, still chant about able Mable.

I've been wondering if this is really still seen to be a defining characteristic of a boor: resting one or more elbows on the table while eating or while waiting between courses. Last night, we ate at West End Grill, a pleasant, pretty fancy restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. It's a fairly popular place, despite rather high prices, and was reasonably full even on a rainy Wednesday. We enjoyed our food, and enjoyed the leisurely service.

It was definitely NOT A HORSE'S STABLE, but a first-class dining table.

Encrusted halibut on a bed of spinach.
Sable fish with oriental vegetables -- only Len's hand was
on the table. He is faithful to the elbow rule.
In fact, our table was in the center of the restaurant, which has one large dining area and a bar where they also serve food. From my seat, I could see about half the other tables, and I realized that I could unobtrusively observe quite a few diners: men in suits, women in reasonably nice clothes, dressed up by local Ann Arbor standards. I would guess that around half the tables were filled with professors entertaining speakers from other institutions, and the rest with couples like us, treating themselves to a good meal.

When we were waiting for our various courses, I realized that I could check up on the other diners, and see who was obeying or violating the elbow rule.

At almost every table I observed, at least one person had elbows on the table. Yes, men in sport jackets (didn't see any ties) rested their elbows on the table between courses. A woman in quite a nice outfit was eating with her elbows on the table. A man at the bar had the elbow of his drinking arm on the bar surface. Adults of all ages were included in my little sample. I'm not sure a single diner was innocent of this questionable act, though I think most did so only between courses.

If people who have dressed up to dine at such a formal place don't keep their elbows off the table, then when in the course of life in our admittedly permissive society does anyone actually observe the rule?

I spent a few minutes checking etiquette advice online. Most experts (whether self-appointed or professionals) suggest avoidance of elbows on the table, for the sake of tradition. Some point out what we found out many years ago: the rule is different in other countries, notably in France, where it's absolutely polite and standard to rest elbows on the table because your hands are supposed to be in sight at all times while dining. A few say that the rule has changed, and that American and British etiquette only requires elbow-absence during, not between, courses. I think my fellow diners last night illustrate that times have changed, though formal rules may persevere. I also think the no-elbow rule will survive because it's just too much fun to chant about Mable.


Pam said...

I immediately put the napkin on my lap and definitely keep my left hand there when in a restaurant, never elbows on the table. I was trained that way very young and passed it on to our sons. We were at a very nice restaurant in Lake Geneva Monday when I saw a 30-something woman eat while leaning over her left arm that was laying horizontally on the table in front of her. That was different! Most of my friends do "no elbows" also.

Jeanie said...

Well, this is pretty interesting. I don't think I do elbows on the table when eating but perhaps in between bits. I'll have to keep an eye out!

Cakelaw said...

The food here looks really good. I don't mind if people have their elbows on the table - as long as they don't talk loudly on their mobile in the middle oc the restaurant, I am fine.

Cheri Savory Spoon said...

Very interesting Mae, I was brought up to not talk with my mouth full or have my elbows on the table and I taught my kids the same. I guess it depends how you are brought up.