If I could hear what people are thinking, the words, “Were you raised in a barn?” would land at the top of the list of questions heard most often.
I’m not a dainty creature at all. That and the fact that I lack certain graces and refinements that most women enjoy make enduring the occasional social engagements uneasy at best and downright embarrassing at worst. But, needing some lame excuse for my behavior, I blame growing up in a big family. My formative years spent among four siblings left me with some crosses to bear. They’ve also left others with some mockery to dispense. Most of the shame I experience has everything to do with dining and mealtimes. Here follows a few unfortunate shortcomings I contend with.
Mealtimes in a large family can bring out the beast in some of us—hungry beasts who eat hurriedly and ask questions later—questions like, “What did I just eat?” and “Is there any more?”
Picture this: There are seven people around a dinner table and 13 breaded veal cutlets (bacon isn’t the candy of meats, a veal cutlet à la my family recipe is). Mealtime with my family wasn’t an episode of Survivor, so I couldn’t vote anyone out of the dining room. And, I’m not a magician, so I couldn’t conjure up one more veal cutlet to make it an even two apiece.
What’s left to do: Eat quickly, don’t stop to chew.
Years later, I’m still eating as though I were a child around my family’s dinner table. Sometimes I look up after finishing my meal, see the nearly full dinner plates of my companions, and feel acutely embarrassed and self-conscious. Sometimes I eat so quickly I can’t remember what I just ate. Entire meals depart unnoticed save for the nearly pristine plate upon which the just finished meal sat.
I’ve tried all the techniques to slow myself down. Chewing food until it’s the consistency of puree is annoyingly time-consuming and unnecessary, unless you’ve got an esophagus the diameter of a sparrow’s.
Putting one’s fork down after each bite results in wasted energy. Proof of that: Putting a shovel down after each shovel-full of dirt makes the gardening chore last much longer and prevents one from moving on to more enjoyable things, like dessert.
Taking a sip of water after each bite hydrates a person to the point of balloon-bursting uncomfortableness. And it makes you feel all sloshy inside. People can hear those gurgles and the waves breaking on the shore, you know. Taking a sip of wine after each bite only leads to drunken dinner conversation and worse table habits, like picking up the plate and licking it clean.
Inadequate or Absent Mealtime Conversation
Mealtimes among my family were frequently tense. Someone was always angry at someone else. One of my siblings was usually feuding with another sibling. My father, suffering from severe allergies, could be quite cranky and frequently taciturn. There would be no talking permitted. Just eating and tension.
And eating while tense is a certain pathway to speed chewing and choking. It also doesn’t lend itself to friendly and relaxed mealtime conversation. So, to this day, mealtime conversation for me is a forced exercise. It took me years to go beyond the words, “Are you going to eat that?” to discussions about the weather.
Difficulty Using Utensils Properly
When a fork is too often used in the manner of a shovel, the finer, more dexterous, muscular skills suffer. Sadly, embarrassingly (and expensively), I seem to lack the basic knowledge of how to eat with a fork. Occasionally, I stab my mouth with the tines. The second try is usually a success. No harm done. But once in a while, harm does occur, resulting in a chipped tooth. After a series of mishaps involving chipped teeth and a fork, I finally replaced my worn and whittled picket fence with veneers.
Then, this week, I chipped one of the replacement front teeth. On a fork. Later on that day, my coworkers gave me the inservice on how to properly eat with a fork. I learned that the job involves using the lips rather than the teeth to pull the food from it. It was an expensive lesson. I’m contemplating switching to chopsticks for everything except soup. That I can slurp. I’ll need to buy a pair of safety goggles, though.
Unwillingness to Let Others Have a Taste
This characteristic ties in with the reason I learned to eat quickly. Throughout my adult life, I’ve dated men who think it’s acceptable to take food from my plate without asking—while I’m heavily engaged in wolfing down my meal. This habit that some people display annoys—no, enrages—me. I shelter and guard my plate with the protectiveness of a stray dog over a sparsely meated bone.
Once I even heard myself growl over my plate as I was stabbing my date’s hand with a fork. Now there’s a good use for a fork!
My saving grace is that I’m rarely, if ever, invited out to dine, unless it’s with my coworkers, and they don’t count. But whatever skills and artfulness I lack in mealtime etiquette, I largely make up for by entertaining my dining partners. It’s the closest any of them have ever gotten to being present during mealtimes in the wild kingdom.