Are you the guest who runs late and texts real-time updates? The diner with allergies or the host trying to accommodate them? The social media addict who can’t put your phone down at the restaurant? Whether your manners are a disaster or you simply need some fine-tuning, Jeremiah Tower’s Table Manners is an authoritative and witty guide to table manners for everyone and every occasion. Just in time for the holidays, Jeremiah Tower and his editor, Will Schwalbe, talked through the difference between restaurant manners and home manners, serving a forgotten guest, and the ideal dinner party.
Will Schwalbe: So, Jeremiah, my first question is prompted by the reading line on the jacket. And it’s quite simple: When it comes to table manners, why should we bother?
Jeremiah Tower: If you have good table manners people assume you have good manners in general. When they think that of you, they will take you seriously enough for you to be able to craft the life you want from your community of friends and career associates.
WS: What was it that made you decide to write this book?
JT: It was my publisher’s idea, which, at first, I thought a mad one. When I asked around to those I respect, they unanimously agreed it was a much-needed antidote to an ever-increasing (for the moment) vulgarization of human behavior.
WS: Do you have a pet peeve? Is there one behavior that drives you particularly mad?
JT: Many at the table, but waving a fork around, prongs up and within inches of my face, to make some conversational point otherwise quite ignorable.
WS: When is it okay to point out another diner’s poor manners, if ever? And if it is okay, how do you do so?
JT: If you are a parent or guardian of a child, always. If you are a sibling, never. One points out the errant behavior quietly and firmly, and always explaining why it is errant.
WS: What’s an example of wonderful manners?
JT: Thinking of others’ needs, not your own. Not just offering to help at a party, but actually doing it, and then quietly and without having to ask.
WS: Four people show up at your home for dinner and you completely forgot you invited them. What do you serve?
JT: Always have a larder with dried pasta, fresh quality cheese (white or blue), preserved tuna in jars, capers, dried chilies, perfect olive oil, and butter in the freezer. That and good cheap white and red wine perfectly stored. No challenge there, no matter how many show up.
WS: What’s the main difference between restaurant manners and home manners?
JT: At home alone you can lick the plate. Alone in a restaurant, never. You might scare the servers.
WS: Is there a character from fiction or history that you think has superb manners we should emulate?
JT: Apart from my Russian aunt or those one knows in New Orleans, Lucius Beebe, “the last magnificent.” Harry Cipriani isn’t bad either.
WS: If you wake up with a hangover and a distinct lack of memory about the night before but fear you’ve behaved badly, what should you do?
JT: Call you closest friend also at the party and see how dire, if at all, is the need to send two dozen long-stemmed roses to the host/hostess.
WS: Finally, tell me your ideal dinner party for six. What are you eating and drinking? And who are the other five guests (anyone real or fictional, living or dead)?
JT: It is lunch, not dinner.
Vintage champagne, pressed caviar blini with frozen Żubrówka, wild game bird consommé, aged prime roast beef with Château d’Yquem, nougat ice cream filling pavlova with fresh passion fruit sauce, old madeira, Romeo y Julieta “Churchill” cigars.
Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe (persuaded to leave his townhouse), Marlene Dietrich, Fernand Point, Lucius Beebe. The lunch served in Lucius’s private train dining car going through Feather River Canyon.
Jeremiah Tower is the forefather of California cuisine and the author of the James Beard Award–winning cookbook Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics. He began his culinary career in 1972 as the co-owner and executive chef of Chez Panisse, and has opened numerous highly acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco and around the world. He is the subject of the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. He lives in Mexico.
Will Schwalbe, founder of Cookstr.com, has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in new media; and as a journalist, writing for various publications, including The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. He is the coauthor with David Shipley of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.
Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.