Almost everybody knows the old rules of etiquette, about serving the pot roast from the left and removing the gelatin salad from the right.
But just as pot roast has given way to pasta and chicory has replaced gelatin salad, there is now a whole menu of etiquette questions for eaters.
Questions like how does a smoking person, when surrounded by fervent nonsmokers, satisfy the craving for an after-dinner cigarette?
How, in this age of proud mamas and papas, do you tell Muffy and Biff that their company is requested at your dinner party but the company of their lovely offspring, Biffette, is not?
And how do you handle the problem of dessert lust? The surge of emotion that clouds judgment, dissolves restraint and makes you feel that when it comes to helpings of chocolate cheesecake, once is not enough.
One person who deals with questions of modern-day eating etiquette is Forrest Winquest. Winquest divides her time between teaching people how to cook at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., and seminars she conducts around the Washington, D.C, area teaching people how to mind their manners.
Upwardly Mobile Manners
The nation's capital has long drawn people from all over America who were interested in social climbing, if not in behaving. But Winquest's professional manner seminars specialize in teaching upwardly mobile manners. She gives advice on everything from the correct time to get down to business at a business breakfast--right after ordering, the meal is too short for tarrying--to how to keep the soup off your silk: Sit slightly forward in the chair so your mouth is over the soup bowl and sip with grace and poise.
During a recent interview Winquest handled, with grace and poise, questions of how to behave at a dinner party.
One of the hottest etiquette issues these days is smoking at the table. Smoked meat and smoked fish are fashionable, but smoking cigarettes at the table isn't.
Smokers may be endangered but nonetheless they do deserve some consideration, said Winquest. She had a ready remedy for a diner who craved a puff.
"Go to your hostess and say something like, 'I must have a cigarette--can you tell me where the best place would be to smoke it?' " This method, she said, gives the hostess some room to maneuver . . . graciously, of course.
Diners on the receiving end of cigarette fumes shouldn't be reluctant to speak up against smoke, Winquest said.
When a member of your dinner party asks, "Does anyone mind if I smoke?" tell them the truth, she said.
"When someone says that to me, I say, 'It was considerate of you to ask. And since you asked, I would mind,' " Winquest said.
There was a time when Winquest put up with smoke in grudging silence. But now she voices her preference for no puffing. "I assume that since smokers did ask if I minded, they do want to know the answer," she said.
Disposition of Children
On another potentially messy issue, bringing children to an adult dinner party, Winquest was equally forthcoming.
Read the invitation. Muffy and Biff means just Muffy and Biff, not Biffette.
"A guest should never, never assume that children are invited," Winquest said.
"I adore my children," she said, "but I can't assume other people do."
Children can be an appropriate topic for dinner table conversation, but only if the other diners are interested and only if the children in question have already arrived on the planet.
Discussions about why a couple doesn't have any children yet or on techniques for getting some are not table talk, she said.
The old dinner-party seating pattern of alternating the boys and the girls is not always correct these days, according to Winquest.
In previous years, men and women were given alternate seats to help discourage men from talking sports and women from swapping recipes. But now when women are in the gym and men in the kitchen, the old seating rules aren't necessary, she said.
Guests should be grouped by common interests, not gender, she said. Everybody devoted to building up their biceps, boys and girls, should be seated near each other. Similarly, a man and a woman who both have an interest in the throw weights of nuclear missiles would make good dinner partners. It is the hostess's job to find such common interest among her guests.
Still on the subject of dinner-table pairings, Winquest said that while husbands and wives should, as a rule, be separated, the salt and pepper shakers should not.
The theory behind spreading out the spouses is that husbands and wives already see a lot of each other and the dinner party is an occasion for others to discover what makes the members of this pair so fascinating.
The theory behind salt and pepper traveling together is that if a dinner guest likes one seasoning, chances are good he will also use the other. This fondness for both parts of the pair may be more true of seasonings than it is of couples.
If there is no salt on the table, a salt lover can employ a few socially correct methods to shake some loose.
A Salt-Free Conversation