Now, as we all know Manners maketh the Man — and the Woman too, naturally. And men and women start out as children and, if they are lucky, they are taught how to conduct themselves in a seemly manner at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table.
There really is nothing worse than having to sit next to, or opposite someone with bad table manners … you know what I mean: people who do not wipe their mouths before taking a sip of their drink, who making loud smacking or slurping noises or who eat with their mouths open wide revealing the state of the “cud” within, who sit hunched over their plates and shovel their grub in their mouths or use their knives and forks as if stabbing their food … and worse … you get the picture. At the risk of sound frightfully frightfully stuck up and formal and uptight, I have to own up to the fact that I think good manners at the table are never out of fashion. This said, one can argue as to how to tweak the standards of formality.
It used to be that “all joints on the table shall be carved” i.e. hands, not to mention elbows (!), on the table were strictly taboo. I think this rule is now much more relaxed, especially towards the end of a meal when people are in a good space and can even slouch over the table a little or lean their chin on their hands with elbows resting on the table.
I have a friend with beautiful table manners (she always sits bolt upright and everything about her conduct is dainty when eating) whose mother came from a Southern State in the USA and she taught her to cut up all her food on her plate first, using both hands, and then to rest her left hand on her lap and proceed eating using only her right hand to transfer the morsel of food from the plate to her mouth. I had never heard of this American table etiquette and thought there was something wrong with my friend’s left hand until I found out why!!! I mention this because another factor in this conversation is that table etiquette can vary from country to country.
Well, if there is one rule of table etiquette that is constantly being overridden in Italy it must that of wiping one’s plate, at the end a meal, with a little piece of bread. This table habit is known as “fare la scarpetta” i.e. “making a little shoe” … it derives from Roman dialect but no one is really sure as to its etymology. Maybe it’s because the little piece of bread resembles a small shoe? Dunno … There was even a stupid joke going around when I was a kid. Prince Charming chasing after Cinderella, brandishing her slipper in his hand as she flees the Ball at the sound of midnight … “Cinderella!” he calls out to her entreatingly, “Your shoe!” which in Italian translates as “your Scarpetta!” … and she turns around and stops for a second and answers “O thanks Prince Charming, but I couldn’t possibly eat another thing!”. Because of course la scarpetta marks the end of the savoury part of the meal.
All I knew when growing up was that it was strictly forbidden … even though I often caught some elders at it. It was so forbidden that my mother was still aghast at my perpetrating such an uncouth act at a restaurant when I was in my late twenties. So this is how, now, we all get out of this prickly dilemma (cheat). “We” meaning people who like to uphold good table manners but can’t resist mopping up some delicious sauce on their plate.
You excuse yourself and say you know, naturally, that it’s bad manners but you simply can’t resist the temptation. That way you always get absolved.
However, I would never do this at a formal dinner … it would still be really frowned upon. So don’t poo poo the shoe (scarpetta) but don’t do it when it’s not the right thing to do!
Here is my husband enjoying his “scarpetta” at the end of his meal of petto di pollo all’arancia … criminal to waste that lovely sauce!