French table etiquette / Les manières à table

Hey Americans, looks good, doesn’t it? Mmm, grapes and cheese. But beware! Beware!

So, to my delight I went home to Auvergne this last weekend, and among many other things, discovered – as I always do when I’ve been gone a while – that while I’d retained the bulk of my knowledge of how to be polite at dinner, I’d forgotten a couple of details that my family kindly reminded me of. You want to know all about French eating etiquette, don’t you? Yes, you do, because, like Kari Masson (author of this good post about dinner manners in France), you don’t want to unintentionally startle or offend any French hosts you may have. Right? Right.

As Ms. Masson discusses, many Americans come here figuring that proper table manners and mores are going to be more or less the same as those used by “well brought-up” people in the States. Ah, no, they are not. First of all, there’s the question of your hands. Your hands must be visible at all times while you’re eating; it’s impolite to rest your elbows on the table, but you rest your wrists on the table. Who knows what you could be doing under there?! Actually, my theory about this (I’m no historian and no anthropologist but I like my theory) is that this custom developed because people wanted to be able to see whether their dinner companions were holding weapons; if someone has a hand under the table, you could end up like Greedo. Let’s not forget that this culture (like pretty much every other culture, to be fair) was at war with not only other cultures but with itself (civil wars, feuds, etc) for, oh, milleniae. Putting hands in their laps per American politeness rules is one of the basic food etiquette mistakes Americans make here, and I remember my mother patiently pulling my hands onto the table in France over and over again when I was a kid until I got it through my head (this was a difficult difference to learn and is a difficult table manner to switch without thinking about it, but I’m so nervous now about eating correctly that I usually remember).

Then there’s napkins. I use napkins all the time, of course, but for some reason this time I keep forgetting that you put your napkin in your lap right away (though Ms. Masson may be right and you follow the host in a dinner party setting). You do this immediately, if you’re eating alone. No one’s pointed this out to me, but it’s obvious just looking around. I usually forget, then hastily correct myself while hoping no one noticed.

Then we have drinking etiquette. I also keep forgetting not to take a sip of an aperitif (do Americans even drink aperitifs? not often) before the toast; people put things down in front of me and I automatically take them up and sip at them. Nonono, bad maratinage! You wait until the toast! Someone says “santé” or “chin-chin” or something else appropriate and then you proceed. Few things are more important at table than order.

A kir – white wine with cassis (blackcurrant) liqueur in it. The French drink many kinds of aperitifs. In my family port, whiskey, kirs and Coke are popular. (Copyright unknown.)

My cousin took me to a restaurant, and before we went we stopped by a bar pour un apéritif. I ordered a kir, having not had one in years. We clinked glasses (I probably forgot to wait for that before sipping but he didn’t chide me), and he laughingly noted that I should be looking him in the eye during the toast. I had become so used to American rules about looking people in the eye (you can’t do it for too long, you avoid eye contact in many situations, you look just to the side of people’s eyes, etc etc) that I’d temporarily forgotten the importance of holding someone’s gaze. (It’s often a relief, actually, that I can hold gazes here longer than in the states, but one also forgets – entre deux chaises, after all. Oh, the posts I could write about the phenomenon of looking or not looking people in the eye.) We tried it again and this time I looked at him properly. He explained that legend had it the custom came from pirates, who, when quaffing, wanted to stare at their fellow pirates to see if there were any signs of discomfort that might indicate the drink had been poisoned. I don’t know about the pirates, but I’m totally willing to believe the importance of eye contact has to do with violence; see above.

I mentioned order. I chose the main picture of this post, the grapes and the cheese, to illustrate another basic thing: the order of operations. Even if you are not having the full-fledged multi-course meal with each dish served separately, you will find that there’s an order of things: roughly, the entrée (which means the starter; I don’t know how Anglos got that one mixed up), then the main courses (either served apart or, more commonly, served together), then cheese, then fruit, then dessert. (The placement of salad vs soup/entrées or the final courses depends on the family.) You do not mix these courses with each other if you can help it. I occasionally tell American friends about not mixing cheese and fruit, and they are inevitably surprised. But cheese and fruit go so well together, they cry! Well, sure, but it’s not done. I came back to Auvergne in 2004 after a four-year absence (and to be fair I had never explicitly been taught not to eat cheese and fruit at the same time; I’d just gone along with other people without noticing). I got to my aunt and uncle’s house well after dinner, and my aunt provided a snack. Without thinking, I put a bunch of grapes in the same plate as my slice of Saint Nectaire (local delicacy, very culturally important, extremely tasty, pictured above). I have rarely seen her so surprised – even shocked – and that’s saying a lot. My mother later admitted that she had always found it somewhat disturbing to watch Americans mix cheese and fruit – even after forty-five years – but had never said anything.

Order, folks. French politeness, on an important level, is all about doing things in the right order.

Oh, no no no no no. I mean, wine with either cheese or grapes is fine, but all three at once…(Copyright unknown.)

You also, by the way, don’t drink wine without food accompanying it unless you are having it as an apéritif or at a café (or you’re at a wine-tasting, I suppose). This is an area where I definitely react like a French bourgeois; it took me years to adjust properly to the Anglo-Saxon custom of drinking a glass of wine by itself at home or at a friend’s house (I still don’t do it myself). It feels weird to me even in Anglo bars/pubs (though it does not in French cafés, go figure).

And now you know. Now if I can only remember to wait before jumping on my apéritif…