All through the Cold War, the White House maintained the tradition of Russian table service at its official luncheons and dinners. And now that the Russians have switched from threatening to bewildering, there is talk of abolishing Russian service.
Trust Miss Manners to discover the one political issue that excites no one except herself. But perhaps she can stir something up.The question is only whether food at formal meals should be offered around on platters, with guests taking what they want, or whether each guest should be handed a pre-filled plate, with some of everything on it. Who cares?
But we're talking about a republic. Surely we can turn this into an emotional debate with charges of elitism and the stifling of creativity on one side, and of throwing people out of work and wasting the earth's resources on the other.
The teams are: Russian, French, American (known to the English as English) and Restaurant, listed in reverse order of probable popularity. But since people seem to feel so passionately about their food nowadays (which is why Miss Manners figured that restaurants would claim loyalty before any country), their respective positions - long since removed from any real national claims - should be examined.
All of these are types of formal service, in the modern sense of meaning that guests do not actually have to bus their own dishes. (The equivalent understanding of informal service probably involves keeping the refrigerator door open, and Miss Manners doesn't want to know the details.)
In French service, huge numbers of dishes are set out in symmetrical patterns on the dining table, guests being expected to help themselves and one another from what they find within reach. Standard until the late 19th century, this may be said to survive in today's buffet table. But how we evolved to being dumber than the Victorians, who realized how foolish it was to ask human beings to eat standing up, Miss Manners cannot say.
In Russian service, which replaced the French, food is arranged on platters that are taken around to the seated guests, who serve themselves. Leaving enough to go around depends on the honor system.
In Restaurant service, which is to say at all except the truly best restaurants, food is "plated" in the kitchen, and each person is given some of everything. The commercial attraction is that this is the speediest service, which employs the fewest people.
Notice that this is the only formal service in which guests are not allowed to choose what they take (although in restaurants, they have already stated their preferences when they ordered).
You see where Miss Manners is leading. She is about to suggest that if the White House changes from Russian service to Restaurant (the French system being defunct and the American being impractical for big dinners, however comfy it would be to see the president carving), good food will be wasted.
And that guests may find things on their plates to which they have philosophical, medical or religious objections. And that worthy people with families to support may find themselves out of jobs.
Miss Manners really doesn't want to use those tedious arguments, any more than she wants to fight the even worse arguments that Russian service inhibits the creativity of chefs who would prefer to dribble sauces artistically on plates rather than on platters, or that it is elitist because the citizenry doesn't eat that way every day.
She prefers to argue that the mere continuing of a graceful tradition to distinguish special-occasion dining from more practical methods for everyday use is what is important. There is a vast difference between dignity and pretentiousness.
Dining at the White House has been steadily de-formalized over the past few administrations, until it is nearly comparable to eating in a fancy restaurant. Guests regularly bring dates, reply by telephone (or forget to reply and have to be called), dress for shock rather than decorum, or refuse the invitation altogether, if they have something better to do.
First-timers who consider it a command performance and strain to live up to it by polishing their conversation, their shoes and their manners soon find that the custom is to treat it casually.
And that the unflattering rationale is that anything nicer and more special would be wasted on ordinary citizens, who wouldn't know how to handle it.
The main article was originally published on June 14 1994, and was written by Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners
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