It wasn’t long after my story on kids and etiquette appeared in the Kansas City Star last March that I became self-conscious about my dinner table conduct.
I have Table Manners 101 down pat. Elbows off the table, please-and-thank-you, chewing with my mouth closed. I know what utensil to use — all bets are off, though, if an illusive Victorian-era piccalilli spoon shows up in a table setting.
Punctual arrival for a restaurant reservation or to a dinner party is polite — unlike Tanzanians, whose culture dictates that it’s perfectly acceptable and even preferred to show up 30 minutes late.
And never, ever correct a friend, colleague, sibling or parent at the dinner table, even if it’s the thousandth time your oafish little brother awkwardly retrieves the bowl of mashed potatoes using the boardinghouse reach.
About that rule: guilty as charged. Sorry, brother Todd.
But after observing Etiquette Kansas City owner Janis Kliethermes teach fidgety and grimacing — and often hilarious — kids and young teens etiquette’s finer points for my story, serious misgivings about my own table knowledge bubbled to the surface.
The clincher came during graduation dinner at the Hereford House that signaled the four-week course’s conclusion. Sitting at the back of the banquet room, I watched kids demonstrate Continental versus American styles of eating and tackle the prickly intricacies of eating troublesome foods such as salad and soup.
“Just as ships go out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.”
Kliethermes daintily demonstrated the maneuver, reciting the poem her grandmother used to drive the point home.
Silently I chastised myself for decades of soup-eating transgressions, including a recent encounter with a bowl of French onion at Café Provence in Prairie Village. That cheesy crouton is always a manners deal-breaker.
A personal refresher was in order.
So, a couple weeks after the dinner when I couldn’t take one more botched soup-eating scenario replaying itself in my head, I sent Kliethermes a text.
“High tea at the InterContinental next week?”
“Why certainly!” she replied.
Later, Kliethermes diplomatically shared with me my first two social blunders in making the tea date.
First, despite the temptation for instant communication, a voice-to-voice invitation always trumps a casual cellphone message.
Second, high tea described the late-day meal weary factory workers ate for sustenance, not the elevated version called afternoon tea, where impossibly adorable crust-less finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream are served.
Meeting at our appointed teatime, Kliethermes and I were ushered into the InterContinental’s Oak Room. Before the host had a chance to ceremoniously wave me into a chair at the linen-topped table, I yanked one out and sat down.
Kliethermes smiled and, never taking her eyes off me and, almost in slow motion, demurely accepted the seat offered.
Strike one, I thought. My mind raced ahead to the potential landmines dotting the landscape of afternoon tea.
Kliethermes is a thoroughly modern Miss Manners, dispensing humor and warmth with nuggets of etiquette wisdom, never judging, always graciously coaching.
“I remember when Aunt Mid and Grandma Billie took my sister Jolene and me to a ladies tea, back in New Sharon, Iowa,” Kliethermes reminisced as she ordered tea.
“I had never seen a cucumber sandwich. And that was the day I learned that if someone compliments your attire, you say, ‘Thank you,’ not ‘I hate this dress.’”
Kliethermes started Etiquette Kansas City in 2007 after encountering a general lack of professionalism in both children and adults she met in the talent and modeling agency she bought in 2001.
“I also wondered how my daughters, Heidi and Megan, acted in their friends’ homes,” Kliethermes laughed.
Since launching Etiquette Kansas City, Kliethermes has instructed thousands of people — all ages, diverse walks of life, corporate groups and Scout troops, church organizations and book clubs — how to maneuver myriad social niceties.
“Manners,” Kliethermes sipped on a steaming cup of Rooibos tea, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a linen napkin, “never go out of style.”
During our two-hour tea for two, we nibbled on luscious cakes and tiny sandwiches topped with artfully arranged slivers of smoked salmon, dollops of mayonnaise and capers and cucumber rounds piped with cream cheese and garnished with cherry tomato halves.
Kliethermes and I chatted about the decline of public civility and the rise of informal behavior, especially in restaurants where for example, diners frequently treat cell phones like dinner companions.
“It’s off, and you don’t look at it,” she said. “Cell phones are unnecessary distractions and rude at the table.”
Other common faux pas:
Wearing a cap. “Unless you’re in a McDonald’s or your neighborhood bar, remove it.”
Bringing a cake to celebrate a special occasion. “Stay at home and eat if you don’t want to patronize the restaurant.”
Under-tipping. “If service is unacceptable, let management know; otherwise, 20 percent is the going rate.”
What about sopping up that tempting pool of gravy on your plate?
“Unless you’re at an Italian restaurant, that’s verboten,” Kleithermes said.
At some point I relaxed and stopped looking at Kliethermes out of the corner of my eye, half-expecting her to be looking at me out of the corner of her eye.
We were on level footing, just two gals having afternoon tea at the tony InterContinental.
That was, until I pulled out my lipstick and, gazing into the case’s tiny mirror, began to apply it.
Kliethermes’s eyes burned into my skull. Sheepishly I looked up at my manners maven.
“Better done in the restroom, eh?” I asked.
With a barely discernible forward nod of her head, Kliethermes asked me to pass the clotted cream, please.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.