To be acquainted with every detail of the etiquette pertaining to this subject is of the highest importance to every gentlewoman. Ease, savoir faire, and good breeding are nowhere more indispensable than at the dinner-table, and the absence of them is nowhere more apparent.
How to eat soup and what to do with a cherry-stone are weighty considerations when taken as the index of social status; and it is not too much to say, that a young woman who elected to take claret with her fish, or ate peas with her knife, would justly risk the punishment of being banished from good society.
As this subject is one of the most important of which we have to treat, we may be pardoned for introducing an appropriate anecdote related by the French poet Delille:
Delille and Marmontel were dining together in the month of April, 1786, and the conversation happened to turn upon dinner-table customs.
Marmontel observed how many little things a well-bred man was obliged to know, if he would avoid being ridiculous at the tables of his friends.
“They are, indeed, innumerable,” said Delille; “and the most annoying fact of all is, that not all the wit and good sense in the world can help one to divine them untaught. A little while ago, for instance, the Abbe Cosson, who is Professor of Literature at the College Mazarin, was describing to me a grand dinner to which he had been invited at Versailles, and to which he had sat down in the company of peers, princes, and marshals of France.
“’I’ll wager now,’ said I, ‘that you committed a hundred blunders in the etiquette of the table!’
“’How so?’ replied the Abbe, somewhat nettled. ‘What blunders could I make? It seems to me that I did precisely as others did.’
“’And I, on the contrary, would stake my life that you did nothing as others did. But let us begin at the beginning, and see which is right. In the first place there was your table napkin—what did you do with that when you sat down at table?’
“’What did I do with my table-napkin? Why, I did like the rest of the guests: I shook it out of the folds, spread it before me, and fastened one corner to my button-hole.’
“’Very well, mon cher; you were the only person who did so. No one shakes, spreads, and fastens a table-napkin in that manner. You should have only laid it across your knees. What soup had you?’
“’And how did you eat it?’
“’Like every one else, I suppose. I took my spoon in one hand, and my fork in the other—‘
“’Your fork! Good heavens! None but a savage eats soup with a fork.
But go on. What did you take next?’
“’A boiled egg.’
“’Good; and what did you do with the shell?’
“’Not eat it, certainly. I left it, of course, in the egg-cup.’
“’Without breaking it through with your spoon?’
“’Without breaking it.’
“’Then, my dear fellow, permit me to tell you that no one eats an egg without breaking the shell and leaving the spoon standing in it. And after your egg?’
“’I asked for some bouilli.’
“’For bouilli! It is a term that no one uses. You should have asked for beef—never for bouilli. Well, and after the bouilli?’
“’I asked the Abbe de Radonvilliers for some fowl.’
“’Wretched man! Fowl, indeed! You should have asked for chicken or capon. The word “fowl” is never heard out of the kitchen. But all this applies only to what you ate; tell me something of what you drank, and how you asked for it.’
“’I asked for champagne and Bordeaux from those who had the bottles before them.’
“’Know then, my good friend, that only a waiter, who has no time or breath to spare, asks for champagne or Bordeaux. A gentleman asks for vin de champagne and vin de Bordeaux. And now inform me how you ate your bread?’
“’Undoubtedly like all the rest of the world. I cut it into small square pieces with my knife.’
“’Then let me tell you that no one cuts bread. You should always break it. Let us go on to the coffee. How did you drink yours?’
“’Pshaw! At least I could make no mistake in that. It was boiling hot, so I poured it, a little at a time, in the saucer, and drank it as it cooled.’
“’Eh bien! then you assuredly acted as no other gentleman in the room. Nothing can be more vulgar than to pour tea or coffee into a saucer. You should have waited till it cooled, and then have drunk it from the cup. And now you see, my dear cousin, that so far from doing precisely as others did, you acted in no one respect according to the laws prescribed by etiquette.’”
— an excerpt from Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette by George Routledge