One of the most interesting parts of Cheryl MacLachlan's Bringing France Home is the section on table etiquette. MacLachlan argues that while western cultures may share the same traditional etiquette, the French continue to observe these traditions, even in contemporary life.
When it comes to seating and serving, it appears that the French and Americans do not differ so much; important guests are seated near the hosts, and women are always served before men. But that is where the similarities seem to end.
Did you know that in France, the guest never touches the wine bottle, and the wine glass is never filled to the top (maybe that's why the guest shouldn't touch the wine bottle)? C'est vrai! It is the role of the host to make sure all the wine glasses remain half full.
When the French dine, both hands are visible--never in the lap--with the wrists resting lightly on the edge of the table. MacLachlan points out that this custom dates back to earlier times when the fear of a concealed weapon was a reality.
As we know, bread is served at all French meals, but instead of slathering a slice with butter and eating it whole, the French prefer to break off a small piece of bread, sometimes using it to push food onto their fork. Much more civilized, n'est-ce pas?
Speaking of forks, in France the fork is held in the left hand, tines down, and it is never transferred to the right hand. The knife, which is held in the right hand, is used for cutting and for coaxing bits of food onto the renegade fork. Anyone who has tried this continental style of eating knows it takes some practice, but when mastered, one feels a great sense of accomplishment!
The knife and fork are also used to cut fruit into quarters, then each piece is peeled separately. I have often watched French brother-in-law expertly eat fruit this way and am always impressed with his ease and tidiness in the task.
And what do you do at the end of the meal? When the meal concludes, the fork and knife are placed on the plate, parallel to the table edge, with their handles resting at three o'clock, and the napkin is placed on the table, but not refolded.
MacLachlan continues with observations on table conversation, the art of inviting and receiving guests, and insistence that dinner guests experience only pleasure. The formula? Etiquette aside, pour a good wine, serve good food, and keep things simple.