When it comes to manners in my family one is expected to be au fait in the subject. They won't make or break you with us, but by god if you want to rest comfortably in our subconscious opinion of you then knowing soup spoon from dessert spoon is critical. (The egg spoon, too, if you know what's what.)
Both sides of the family have a history of strict etiquette training. Cotillion for two years is a minimum. Children should be able to properly foxtrot at the age of six, Cha Cha at twelve, and god help you if you can't Charleston by the time you've graduated middle school.
Furthermore, manners classes are mandatory. I recall spending far too many Tuesday nights learning how to properly seat a lady, make introductions, and tie a tie (bow and straight; always Windsor).
All of it was so boring I would have killed to learn how to half-Windsor a noose and kick the chair out from under myself. Unfortunately, propriety demands that one do this in the privacy of your own home and not in front of classmates.
The pinnacle of all the training was table manners. Prim, proper, precise. We didn't simply learn which side the fork goes on, but to differentiate the forks; salad, dessert, dinner, shrimp, fish, even snail forks and their proper places at the meal and when they could be served according to ancient custom was all part of the strict curriculum. Indeed, some of the laws were so odd and arcane (i.e. Brandy glasses must always be placed neither on left or right side of the dinner plate, but the side closest to the host) that one wonders if all this ritual might exist to summon some dark pagan god to brunch.
The instructor, a dour woman with a genteel mien and canckles thick enough to dock a ship to, was thorough to say the least. Not even fourteen, I was able identify nine various types of wine and spirits glasses through her tutelage. Furthermore, she wisely took an international approach and trained us in the proper handling of chopsticks and insisted that we never eat Indian food with our left hand.
Refinement was tested in a final exam: high tea at the Ritz Carlton. Our carriage was graded over steaming cups of Earl Grey and crustless cucumber sandwiches. Still a finicky eater at this age, I was sure that the vile offerings were a test of our vigilance because who on earth would actually want to eat any of it?
I passed with flying colors, though my acerbic wit in response to the food wasn't appreciated. Sadly, there was no place to escape and work on that double-noose Windsor.
In the end, of course, comes the day we all dread when we realize our parents were right. (Not that we would ever admit it.) So it was with all this training in social behavior. The dancing lessons paid off astoundingly well throughout high school, college, and beyond. Leading a sweet gent to the dance floor for a graceful lesson in the waltz is a fantastic way to sweep him off his feet and take him home. My impeccable manners ingratiated me to the parents of any boy I dated. Damn if a bartender doesn't appreciate the fact I know my port glass from brandy snifter.
Naturally, I don't hold others to these standards of near-ridiculous refinement. Not everyone went through such rigorous training. As long as you chew with your mouth closed, say please and thank you, and veer away from any conversation topics focusing on what you read in People magazine, well, we're just dandy.
And, heck, I'm the first to abandon my manners sometimes and just let loose. The Boy Scouts taught me to belch on command and if you take me to a bar that encourages you to throw peanut shells on the ground all bets are off. I'm highly doubtful any etiquette school permits any number of tequila shots before lunch, and passing out in a friend's toilet is right out.
When I brought BF to meet my family for the first time I knew he would pass with flying colors. He was kind, open, and genial. The type of boy every parent wants their child to bring home.
The only thing that concerned me were his table manners. They were atrocious. I bluntly told him so.
My parents wouldn't chastise him for it. They wouldn't even mention it. However, I would be able to detect that slight twitch in their pupils when they saw him carving up his meat as if he was hacksawing a plank of knotted pine.
I gave him a crash course on the plane: fingers pointed, when finished the utensils sit on the corner of the plate, and so on and so forth.
At dinner, BF forgot everything I told him. When the flank steak was served he gripped his dinner knife as if he were planning to use it to skin a gator. No holding his utensils right and proper. He just tore that steak up into individual pieces and then set about eating them.
I looked at my mom and she gave me a small smile. "Not to worry," it said. "Not all children were properly tortured in propriety the way you were. We love him anyways."
In my family, we preferably use silverware made of actual silver. If using plastic ware or - heaven help us, a spork - then all decency flies right out the window along with any of Emily Post's hopes for a more demure future for society before she died. My mom can bawl out dirty jokes worse than anyone and my brother actually knows a dead baby joke so terrible it once made a friend of his burst into tears whereas my dad was laughing his head off. Neither are beyond sharing these at the dinner table. When we do hamburgers then napkins are tucked into shirts and bawdiness is rightly encouraged.
We know that sometimes food just needs to be enjoyed. Other foods, however, not only require but demand decorum.
Sables are such a food.
Sables are a dainty sounding cookie. Unlike pawing out a chocolate chip cookie from the jar before fisting it into a trough of milk, sables are delicate and sandy things eaten after an afternoon shopping for china patterns.
These in particular are something extra refined. Vanilla bean flecks the cookies while a verdant crust of ground pistachio graces the rims. Not only do they look stunning but they taste phenomenal.
Given, these could also be enjoyed after Chinese take-out or simply because you want a snack. That's the thing about sables: whenever you eat them they make the situation a little more cultured.
Just remember to eat them pinky up.
Pistachio & Vanilla Sables
The original recipe by Dorie Greenspan was published in the New York Times back in 2004. I think it was one of the first sable recipes I ever used. Way before I was blogging or even got to personally know Dorie (or even know who she was). I haven't changed it much because it doesn't need it, all I add is vanilla bean and pistachios, and I skip the egg wash.
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup pistachios
1. In an electric mixer using the paddle attachment beat the butter and vanilla bean seeds on medium speed for 1 minute or until creamy. Add the sugars and salt and beat for another minute. Reduce speed to low and add the egg yolks and beat for two minutes.
2. Add the flour and pulse a few times before mixing on low until the flour is just incorporated, about thirty seconds. Do not overbeat. It should have a playdough consistency and not be a solid ball. It should be moist, soft, and clumpy.
3. Scrape dough onto a work surface and divide in half. Place each half on some plastic wrap and shape into two logs about 9-inches long. Wrap them up and chill for 4 hours.
4. Place pistachios in a food processor and pulse until very finely ground, but not quite powder. Preheat oven to 350F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
5. Roll the logs in the pistachios. Cut the logs 1/3-inch wide and place 1-inch apart. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until lightly blonde around the edges. Allow them to rest a few minutes before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely.