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Etiquette question: Picking up food

Hi all -- I have an etiquette question that I was wondering about at a recent business dinner. Is it acceptable to pick up food in a restaurant and chew on the bone? I was having some wonderful lamb chops and would have enjoyed gnawing on them (delicately, of course) but wasn't sure if it would put people off.

Any thoughts or insights on this critical issue? :)

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  1. Not unless it's a ribs-type joint or something similar - the in-house/at-table version of picnic food.

    Which isn't to say that some people seem to manage to ignore this rule with a measure of elegant insouciance.

    Don't ever do it at a business dinner.

    1. Definitely not OK at a business dinner. Otherwise, it's a time/place/situation dependent question in my mind. Some places serve, for example, fried chicken and that sort of begs to be finished off by picking up the piece. I'm sure that etiquette books will say it's not OK...but I think it can be in the right setting.

      2 Replies
      1. re: ccbweb

        I don't have a copy of an etiquette book handy right now, but I am nearly certain that fried chicken has the green light for eating with one's fingers (can't remember if it was Baldridge or Post or Martin on that). I agree with the right setting for fried chicken, and not in a business dining situation.

        1. re: cayjohan

          epicure_ny, unless you're the CEO, I don't think finger food is a good idea at a business dinner.

      2. A thing jfood learned from his dean at Business School. Business dinners are for business not dinner. Unless it's a rib joint with a bunch of colleagues, the bones stay on the plate.

        Also, when you are having a business lunch and especially an interview lunch look for the item on the menu that will be the least intrusive to the interview. DO NOT order long speghetti ar something that will fly if the fork or knife hit the wrong part. Think risotto. It is the perfect interview lunch order. Stays together nicely on the fork, can be swallwed quickly if asked a question and should not land on anyone's clothes. Crabcakes work well, too.

        It is difficult for chowhounds not to order what they want in an interview, but if something looks good, go back when you land the job and treat yourself.

        1. There's a story that Oscar Wilde was having dinner with some very uptight companions at an elegant London restaurant. When he picked up a lamb chop and ate it with his fingers, he received looks of disapproval. His response: "You poor souls, have you completely forgotten that eating is supposed to be fun?

          The fact is that eating lamb chops with your fingers is good manners. Queen Victoria did so at state dinners. Emily Post, Miss Manners, and Craig Claiborne all agree that lamb chops are on the list of foods that may be eaten with the hands. And Daniel Rogov says that "Even in the most posh restaurants it is perfectly acceptable to use the fingers to finish off lamb chops."

          Perhaps the fact that this was a business dinner changes the analysis a little bit. A colleague might mistakenly have believed that you were violating the rules of etiquette by using your hands. And a business dinner is admittedly not the place for education on such matters. But where do you draw the line? Do you eat your bread with a knife and fork?

          13 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            For a business dinner, I think I'd arbitrarily draw the line here: don't pick up anything that might under any circumstance cause you to think "a handiwipe would be great right now" when you're done eating it.

            1. re: alanbarnes

              Thanks for a wonderful response. Other than lamb chops, I can't think of many other things that would require picking up that are served in elegant settings (I think if you are being served fried chicken and corn on the cob, it's assumed you would use your fingers). However, as this board seems divided, I will exercise restraint (and certainly would not do so in any sort of interview/trying to impress a client event).

              1. re: epicure_ny

                Eating asparagus with your fingers is "correct" as long as not covered in sauce - if that helps!

                1. re: MMRuth

                  OMG I'm glad to read this if it's true. I do this at home all the time and have "caught" myself doing it in restaurants and then quickly switched back to knife/fork, but I prefer it this way. (I don't generally eat it with any kind of sauce)

              2. re: alanbarnes

                When I moved to England in the mid-60's, I was astonished to see people heating hamburgers with knife and fork!

                1. re: pikawicca

                  I'm still trying to get the English people I know to pick up pizza slices. Most of them think I'm a slob for eating it with my hands.

                  1. re: Kagey

                    Pizza is SUPPOSED to be eaten with a knife and fork- never been to Italy?

                    1. re: John Manzo

                      That may be true in Italy (yes, I go there a lot, and I've seen it done both ways). But it does depend on the place. In New Jersey you'd be out of place eating it with a knife and fork. It's all relative.

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    Not everyone is aware of the rules however. I had a contract several years ago to stage some major events for a large corporation. At one formal luncheon, I sat at a table with one of their executives who was horrified to see me pick up steamed asparagus spears with my fingers. She exclaimed rather loudly, "What are you doing? Eating with your fingers! You're supposed to be handling the protocol for this company!" I wasn't exactly in a position to give her a lesson in Emily Post. Fortunately, she wasn't the one signing my checks.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      Yes - that is an issue to consider!

                    2. re: alanbarnes

                      I don't have a reference for this, but my family always taught me that it was ok to pick lamb chops up with your fingers, that is why they are always served with those little paper booties on them.

                      Sad to say, I have not seen lamb chops served with paper booties on them in years, so I assume the restaurant does not want people picking them up with their fingers. The problem is without the booties, you end up having to suck your fingers to get them clean. Cloth or paper napkins it doesnt matter, you cant really get the grease off without water, which is why they used to provide finger bowls along with the paper booties. No booties? No finger bowl? No finger food.

                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                        Those fluted paper frills were a common presentation years ago for "frenched" lamb chops, particularly crown roasts of lamb or whole racks of lamb (all 8 chops), but I suppose they'd be laughed at today as too fussy. Frenching means that the butcher scrapes all the meat from the bone, exposing it down to the part where the meaty part of the chop begins. Makes the chop more tidy. My butcher, pretty old-style, still provides them and I take them right off.

                        I've seen references in some old etiquette books that say that if your fingers get soiled from picking up something such as a lamb chop or other appropriate finger food but no finger bowl has been provided, you should request one from the waiter. I think that's a pretty unrealistic idea in a restaurant today. How do you say mass confusion? Heaven only knows what they'd bring you.

                    3. Nope. Get a doggy bag. Enjoy them in the privacy of your home or hotel room. Unless the restaurant is an informal one serving the types of food expected to be consumed with the hands like fried chicken or ribs.

                      In formal dining situations, the general rule is that you don't pick up food with your hands with a very, very few exceptions.
                      The corresponding rule for those planning menus is that they shouldn't serve the types of foods that would require guests to use their hands at formal occasions. Most etiquette experts advise against serving fried chicken, corn on the cob, mussels in their shells, or other such "casual" or picnic-style foods at such events for this reason.
                      Yes, it is a problem when we're served meat on a very tempting bone. It's especially hard for some who don't have good knife-and-fork skills to really get around bones and get as much meat as they would like off them. C'est la vie. Practice more at home. There are lots of ticklish etiquette situations but fortunately, we won't starve to death.
                      The worst part is that the meat close to that pork chop bone always seem to be the best and juiciest, doesn't it?

                      9 Replies
                      1. re: MakingSense

                        Do you have a source for this "general rule"? AFAIK, the etiquette experts are in complete agreement that a wide variety of foods--including lamb chops and asparagus--may be eaten with the hands, even in a formal dining situation.

                        EDIT: Reading your post above, maybe you're using the phrase "general rule" a little more broadly that I was reading it. Some people are unaware that proper etiquette allows certain behavior, and therefore assume that it is prohibited. I take the opposite view: what is not prohibited is allowed.

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          I would say the "general rule" that MakingSense is talking about is less an etiquette rule than a rule of behavior that most people abide by. If I'm at a business dinner, I could care less what Emily Post says. The only person I care about is my (hopefully) future boss' opinion, and most people don't eat asparagus with their fingers.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            There are not a "wide variety" of finger foods acceptable at truly formal dinners because most of them are planned to avoid awkward foods which make the guests uncomfortable.
                            Are you really going to pick up that lamb chop in your fingers - however correct you might be - if your hostess and everyone else at the table is using their knife and fork? As a hostess, I might not even serve lamb chops to some guests who might be uncomfortable eating with their hands.

                            Most foods are eaten with utensils. This would include most of the soups, meats, fish, vegetables, starches, salads and desserts you are likely to encounter at a formal table or even a business function, unless you are eating at a very informal restaurant or situation such as a picnic. This is what I meant by "the general rule in formal dining situations."
                            Of course, everyone will at some point in their lives, if they go to enough formal dinners, be faced with a challenging situation. It's impossible for anyone to know how to handle every one of these. I've had friends with the State Department and White House Protocol Offices tell hilarious stories of gaffes that they and others have made. Lord knows, I have. You learn the "general rules" and pick up the fine points as you go. You will never learn them all because they change from country to country, culture to culture, and household to household
                            The only solution is to watch what others are doing and do your best.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              Agreed that the guest's job is to make the host comfortable, and vice versa. The classic example is the hostess who, upon seeing her guest drink from his finger bowl, proceeded to drain her own. So when in doubt, it's best not to do anything that might surprise / annoy / embarass your fellow diners.

                              On the other hand, the ill-informed emphasis on poorly-understood rules of etiquette is a trend that rears its ugly head from time to time. Viz, the bourgeois English insistence on calling a napkin a "serviette" because it might be confused with a baby's diaper (which in turn is called a "napkin" because calling it a "diaper" might offend a clueless someone's delicate sensibilities).

                              IMHO, courtesy and grace are far more important than specific rules. Part and parcel of good manners is to prevent any uncomfortable situations from arising at the table. And the enforcement of arbitrary rules does exactly the opposite of this--it makes diners uncomfortable because they are concerned about committing a gaffe.

                              The State Department will not be calling me for an interview anytime soon, and I have the luxury of not requiring the approval of any business dining companions. Nevertheless, there's something to be said for ratcheting down the anxiety level a notch or three. If you have mastered the basics of acting like a civilized human being, just pay attention to your surroundings and use common sense. No need to observe too many rules, especially when many of them aren't widely-recognized rules at all.

                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                That's virtually a one sentence etiquette book, alanbarnes: "If you have mastered the basics of acting like a civilized human being, just pay attention to your surroundings and use common sense." Perfectly stated!!!

                                The times that people seem to get into trouble is when the sit at the table and dig into their food without paying attention to those they are dining with. No one is in danger of starving to death in that minute or so that it takes to figure out what's going on with that odd thing that's been placed in front of you. Somebody at the table knows what you're supposed to do with it, how you're supposed to eat it.
                                I've worked with protocol professionals from State, the White House, Embassies and corporations for years and they don't know all the rules because nobody possibly can. They always ask. That's the key.
                                As you say, it's about caring enough to make people comfortable and using common sense.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  I agree AB.

                                  My points on this were going to be rather simple. First and foremost, if you're not sure, play it safe. As you said, have a look around, if you don't know what to do. Try to follow others leads.

                                  As for rules of etiquette, from what I was always learned, if it's on a bone, it's designed to be picked up and eaten with the hands. Ribs, chicken, etc. The problem is with foods like lamb or say pheasant which you'd get in an elegant/formal setting. This is where you refer back to the "Pay attention to your surroundings."

                                  It's sort of a "Better to remain silent and thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt" type thing.


                                2. re: MakingSense

                                  Well said, MakingSense.

                                  However, if everyone else is confident enough to think 'my future raises be damned', then by all means, pick up that bone.

                              2. re: MakingSense

                                i would not recommend getting a doggy bag at a business dinner. yuk.

                                as for eating with your hands, it's best in this case to err on the side of caution. bones on the plate, fingers on flatware.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  I wouldn't ask for a doggy bag at a business dinner either.
                                  That's certainly a situation when both a doggy bag and gnawing on bones are strictly for the dogs!

                              3. Traditionally the etiquette rules dictate that yes it's okay. But as some one else said it has become a much more time and place thing.

                                Asparagus is also considered to be a finger food.


                                1. I was always taught to eat meat with a knife and fork, even lamb chop and chicken legs by my grandmother who considered Emily Post to be an illbred upstart, but then granny did put on airs. I was told that if I had good knife skills I would learn to get the delectable little pieces, and after a while I did. We also never ate asparagus with our fingers. But meals at my grandmother's house were stilted and formal. I couldn't wait to leave the table and run to the kitchen to hang out with the help and pick at the leftovers. We also weren't allowed to cut salad leaves with our knives. If the leaves were too big to eat -- which would be poor form on the part of the cook -- then we used the side of our forks.
                                  During business dinners I tend to go with the most formal manners just in case someone is offended -- and people can be offended by the most trivial things. But in more relaxed settings, I must admit I relax more, although chewing with your mouth open will ever be tolerated and napkins always go in the lap.

                                  1. I would probably leave the lamb chop on the plate, but what about quail? That's an item often served in high-end restaurants...I eat the body w/ knife and fork, but pick up the tiny wing and drumstick....striving for elegant insouciance, Karl. Opinions?

                                    9 Replies
                                    1. re: danna

                                      Now I'm not so sure. Was the OP asking about etiquette at a business dinner -- where one would do well just to order the fish -- or at a high end restaurant?

                                      If the latter, the sky's the limit, it's your food, you're paying for it, eat it any way you please.

                                      Again, at a business dinner where your future salary hangs in the balance, I would say don't order any kind of finger food.

                                      1. re: danna

                                        Quail is supposed to be eaten in hand. (Ortalan should be eaten with a cloth over your face, but I digress.) I would never order it at a business dinner unless the host was ordering it for everyone, as it were. As others have noted, business dinners are business, not really dinner. Do nothing at a business dinner that draws unwelcome attention to oneself. Unless you don't care about your future raises or employment prospects.

                                        1. re: danna

                                          If you were at a private dinner at a restaurant with friends, order the quail and pick up the small bones with your fingers. It's perfectly proper as Karl says. If they were to say something or look at you funny, you can talk about it because you are among friends.

                                          I arrange a lot of official and corporate meals however and I would strongly advise any of my clients against putting something like quail on a a menu, unless they knew the people they were entertaining very well and there was a good reason to do so. It falls into the category of "problem foods" simply because many people don't know whether or not you can pick up the tiny bones or not. Often these sorts of functions include guests who are unknown or not well known to the hosts and it's important not to place them into uncomfortable positions.

                                          You asked what to do and you're a sophisticated person, danna. What about some poor junior associate for a law firm worried about getting a promotion? Let's make life easier. Avoid "problem foods" when planning menus or ordering in restaurants for business meals.

                                          1. re: danna

                                            rack of lamb is always a dicey choice at a business dinner. If it comes as a rack, you're sunk and it is best to ask the server to have the kitchen cut into chops, unless of course you have perfect knife skills to cut between the bones.

                                            Quail, oh boy does jfood love quail. He would never order that at a business dinner as others have stated. Even when he is out amongst friends, you need to read whether this might cause a "little discussion" on the drive home.

                                            One of the responsibilities of mentoring an associate is client management. Jfood has seen numerous super-intelligent associates do a nose plant in front of client. "Are you finished with that and if you are can I have it please?" You would not believe some of the things jfood has heard out of the mouths of top-tier MBA and Law School candidates over the years.

                                            1. re: jfood

                                              Yes, as a former associate at a Wall Street firm, I can. Seriously considered developing etiquette classes for young professionals to market to law firms/investment banks etc. Your post made me think though - when ordering rack of lamb in a restaurant - do they serve a person a whole rack? I guess I don't order it out much - given the great prices of same at Costco!

                                              1. re: MMRuth

                                                jfood has seen it presented both ways. some resto find it an Ahah moment to bring a whole rack (maybe 4-5 bones) others like to balance the chops teepee style. Always a good idea to ask that the kitchen separate.

                                                you and mrs jfood have the same idea about the etiquette class. little jfood has brought home numerous guys/gals who are matriculating to law/biz/med schools and jfood always does a little mentoring over dinner. He remembers when his roommate's father, who was the dean of the business school, did likewise 30 years ago and is forever grateful. Sorta giving back for that great bit of guidance.

                                                1. re: jfood

                                                  When at said law firm (as an older associate - 2nd career), I did the same for some of the 25 year olds - couldn't help myself. Not in public, of course.

                                                2. re: MMRuth

                                                  It's surprising how many young professional are resistant to the concept of etiquette or protocol briefings. I think they have to really step in it a few times before they see the value of it.
                                                  Older or more senior executives get it and usually ask for advice before going into unfamiliar situations. Perhaps because they have seen first-hand or heard stories of what can happen when people screw up, however innocently. They realize how important this is as we deal more and more across cultural and other boundaries in all of our dealings, business and personal.

                                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                                    First rule of thumb for dinner in a foreign country. Ask your in-country colleagues BEFORE the meal what are the do's and don'ts of the meal.

                                            2. It's unfortunate that many people today are unaware of what proper etiquette is.
                                              Even if it is OK (according to Mrs. Post et al) to pick up that lamb chop and delicately gnaw on it, I wouldn't do it at a business dinner. There will most likely be that one person who knows nothing about etiquette and will say to everyone that will listen "Can you believe epicure_NY did that!!!???"
                                              For example, a woman at the next table the other day gave me a funny look for eating a piece of Sushi with my fingers, which btw is perfectly acceptable.
                                              On the other side of the coin I remember going for one of my first casual corporate happy hours. Someone ordered buffalo wings which I had never had before. I ate one, using my fork and knife. The "boys" I worked with never let me live that one down!
                                              So obviously, watching what everyone else does before acting can take you a long way in life :-)

                                              5 Replies
                                              1. re: SweetPea914

                                                As manners go, it's never okay to give someone a funny look for the way they're eating, acceptable or not. But, as eating buffalo wings with a fork and knife, I might have applauded if I saw someone doing that--it can't be easy!

                                                1. re: SweetPea914

                                                  Nice job SP. Jfood can'r stand Buff Wings and does not understand the attraction of the sweating brow with your colleagues.

                                                  Jfood tried using a knife and fork at a dinner with squab wings. Thought he would need a surgical monocular to see what he was doing.

                                                  1. re: jfood

                                                    My husband hates to eat anything with his hands and can "clean" spare ribs with a knife and fork in such a way that you would swear that there had never been meat on them.

                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      twin sons of different mothers.

                                                      mrs jfood gets mighty angry with him because she loves bones when the two of us are home alone and jfood could leave absolutely zero for her if he wanted. But being the sweetheart he is, he always leaves plenty for her nibbling urges.

                                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                                        MMRuth- Now THAT is impressive.
                                                        JFood - You need to talk to your Master and find out why he isn't saving some of that meat on the bone for YOU, being the good, loyal dog that you are :-)

                                                  2. As others have said, it entirely depends on the situation and style of establishment. If you're not sure, look at what other people are doing. In a formal restaurant where nobody is gnawing on the bones, it's probably appropriate not to, even if you'd like to. If it's a casual place and everyone is eating their chicken wings with their fingers, you'd be out of place eating yours with a knife and fork, regardless of how good your knife skills are. It's not really dependent on whether it's a business dinner or you're out with friends, lots of casual places have a business clientele that are obviously having a "business" meal.

                                                    If you're not sure/can't tell, it's probably better not to gnaw on the bones, because etiquette is all about consideration for others, and gnawing on the bones might give the message to the host/organizer that the quantity of food wasn't adequate.