Photo: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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"The way you eat a sandwich is so elegant"
Long ago, when I was a young student and traveled, a Frenchman said this to me. He was not my boyfriend or interested in becoming my boyfriend or even interesting in just having sex with a cheerful American. He was dating one of the most beautiful people on the planet, a woman who was snuggled up on his arm like a tall, dark luxurious human stole. What the two of them were doing at a student cafeteria, I will never understand. And yet, as we stood together at the counter, strangers eating our ham-and-cheeses, he noticed a habit I had developed of taking very small bites off the huge long hunk of bread and wiping all the little flakey crumbs that showered down onto my chin with a napkin. Twenty years later, when I think of this comment, a little sunset still glows inside me. Because—and this is a little embarrassing—I had worked at sandwich eating. Eating a sandwich in France is the European equivalent of eating a large drippy log-size burrito, due the size of thick baguettes and the overuse of butter. I wanted it to do to it with a wee less glop and a wee more class.
Somewhere in your life, someone is carefully serving your salad before serving themselves. What's interesting is that very, very few people notice it. We expect good table manners and usually only comment on the bad. Praising something that's this invisible not only makes a person feel good for doing what they've done (improving the view during dinner) but also for what it cost them—which, when it come to manners, means things like not getting to lick the chocolate sludge at the bottom of the ice cream bowl.