'Downton Abbey' Dinner Manners: We Report From a Dakota County Library Etiquette Class

What's a newcomer like Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) to do when faced with a battery of strange forks during a Downton Abbey dinner? To find out, I went to a special etiquette class.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on June 25, 2012. We're re-running it in honor of the season kick-off of Downton Abbey, Season Three.

PBS has announced that renowned actress Shirley MacLaine would join the Emmy-nominated cast of "Downton Abbey" in Season 3 as upstart American matriarch Martha Levinson, a character who will almost certainly seem scandalously uncouth to the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

So, what's an unschooled Yank to do when confronted with an elaborate table setting? Here are a few tips, from a Downton-style etiquette class recently held at the Burnhaven Library. 

Don't talk to the help—and that precludes a please or thank you. It may seem impossibly rude to us in 2012, but during the Victorian and Edwardian era the well-to-do instituted an almost impenetrable verbal barrier between themselves and the staff at mealtime, said instructor Jayne Becker, of the Minnesota Historical Society.

"There was a fourth wall between the classes during meals," Becker said, adding that all the intimate conversations between the Downton bigwigs and their maids take place behind closed doors, but never a word is spoken at the table. "You didn't talk to a servant."

Instead, a simple head nod would suffice if offered a course. If you needed to leave the table to attend to biological needs, you would not verbalize this. Instead, you would leave your fork and knife in a V-shape on your plate (see photo above), which would signal to the waiter that you are not finished. To indicate that you were done with a course, you would set your silverware upside down in the middle of the plate, perpendicular to the table's edge.

• What does it mean if the China is mismatched? It means that you are at the home of a very wealthy person indeed, and that you should be mightily impressed. At the time, a mix-and-match approach showed status, because it meant you had more than one China set to play with. If all your pieces matched, it meant you only had one set of good China, which would put you in a more modest class.

Implements You Might Find on the Table

Today's formal setting is confusing to the uninitiated, but it's nothing compared to a table circa 1872 or 1912. Don't believe me? Take a gander at the pictures above.

- The rule of thumb is that each piece of silver is paired with a specific course, and it is arrayed from outside in. Soup spoons and butter knives, for instance,  are the furthest out, because they are used for earlier courses.

- What seems to be a glass or crystal handweight is in fact a knife rest (so you won't dirty the linen).

- The tiny crystal dish at the top of the plate, paired with an extremely petite spoon, is a salt cellar. If you were at this table, you would have to take care to remove the spoon from the salt whenever you were done with it, otherwise the spoon would erode and the hostess might have to buy another extremely expensive, Lilliputian piece of silver.

- Each dish has an ultra-specific use. The one that has a sort of mandala-shaped design on it is an oyster dish (the sauce is in the middle and the oysters would be arrayed around it). Underneath it is an artichoke dish, with a place for the head, a spot for sauce and a spot for the remnants of eaten leaves. 

- If you look close, you can see that the soup bowl has little handles on either side. This is not an invitation to drink directly from the bowl. In fact, you may not eat any of the broth at all. In some instances, one would be expected to spear out the solid contents of the soup with a fork. If no spoon was provided at this stage in the meal, it meant that a guest should leave the broth be.

- Say you had a piece of hardware in front of you and no idea what it's for. If all else fails, subtly watch the host or hostess to see what they do with it.

Avoiding a Faux Pas (How to Properly Eat a Cherry Tomato)

All the silver of the Victorian and Edwardian era was designed to slow an eater down. The point was not the food, but the company. As such, it was often difficult to use without the risk of getting frustrated and looking silly. It was common, for instance, for a host to serve ice cream with a sort of spork—which would only allow you to eat the ice cream in a dignified way before it melted, which it would most likely do as you were taking small, dignified bites between words. Once you could no longer get a chunk of it on your spork, you would be finished, no matter how much you wanted to lap it up.

So what if you have a diabolical host who serves a food item that is hard to fit in your mouth, but also hard to cut, like a cherry tomato? The right thing to do is put your knife through the middle tine of your fork and spear the juicy item to keep it firmly in place while you cut the tomato into quarters. Even so, you might still make a gaffe if the tomato is rubbery and hard to keep under control—which puts you at risk for a ghastly scene in which your tomato scurries across the table into Lady Mary's wine glass, flies through the air onto Lady Edith's salad plate, or worst of all, sprays its pulpy insides all over the other guests. Here Becker advises a diner to use their intuition. Ask yourself: Is this tomato about to blow? If the answer is yes, leave it alone and eat something else.   

There are some foods that even the British aristocracy would consider finger foods. In the unlikely event that Countess Cora serves spare ribs, you have the OK to (delicately) eat them with your fingers. The same is true of oysters or artichokes. This is where proper use of your napkin comes in. Fold it in half on your lap and wipe your fingers on the inside of the fold, so that a casual observer would only see a clean, white napkin. 

What do you do if there's an olive pit or a bone in your mouth? If you're eating with a fork, remove the bones with it and set it on the edge of the plate, Becker said. If you're eating a finger food, remove it with your fingers and do the same. Under no circumstances should you hide the remnants somewhere, even if they seem gross to look at. This strategy could backfire, particularly if you put them in your napkin. A server could end up flinging the bones, which have been in your mouth, all over the place. In the end, it's better to have such items visible than risk them touching other people.

Don't cut up all of your meat at once. It's better form to cut two to four pieces at a time, only as much as you immediately plan to eat.

Talk, smile, make eye contact. It's not about the roasted pheasant. The main purpose is to socialize, not to tuck in as much brie en croute as you can.

So there you have it. You'll have to wait to find out how Dame Shirley's manner stack up. Downtown's newest season begins on Jan. 6, 2013 in the U.S. after premiering in the U.K. in September. 


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