The Correct Way to Eat Clams, Mussels, and Oysters–the “aphrodisiacs” of the sea

Clams, Mussels, and Oysters

To observe clams, mussels, and oysters is to immediately see why they have long been dubbed “the aphrodisiacs of the sea.” And many men claim to be sexually aroused just by looking at them, let alone for “eating them out” of their shells!

Clams and oysters, but more oftentimes oysters, are served raw in the half-shell—on a bed of cracked ice. They are traditionally accompanied by wedges or halves of fresh lemons (sometimes covered in cheesecloth stockings which allow the juice of the squeezed lemons to be released onto the shellfish while retaining the seeds of the fruit) and a tomato-based cocktail sauce to which horseradish may be added. Sometimes oyster crackers are also served as a complement, and some gentlemen are in the acceptable habit of crumpling the crackers with the fingers and adding the crumbs to the cocktail sauce.

Bracing the shell with the left hand, the oyster fork is used in the right hand to convey the entire oyster or clam to the mouth. Never are they cut with a knife. If a gentleman wishes to flavor his shellfish with the cocktail sauce, he may use the oyster fork to dab the desired amount of sauce onto the shellfish whilst it is in its shell, or he may dip the fork-speared shellfish into the sauce. The custom of picking up the shell and pouring the shellfish into the mouth is acceptable under less formal circumstances, where oyster forks are oftentimes not provided. And some connoisseurs insist that oysters taste best eaten in such a manner.  But at a formal event, whatever can be eaten with an implement should be eaten with an implement. Such are the laws of Western society.

Mussels, and sometimes clams, are also steamed, usually in a white wine- or beer-based sauce. When steamed, mussels are presented in their full, two-halved shells, which tend to open naturally in the steaming process as their adductor muscles yield when exposed to heat. The mussel should be removed from its shell with a fork and eaten in one bite.

About 12 percent of all mussels, however,  will not open during the normal steaming or cooking process. But contrary to popular myth, they should not necessarily be discarded as bad, for most often they are good and would have opened with additional cooking, though at the risk of becoming tough. (Actually, it is the mussels that open prematurely in the cooking process, those that emit a foul odor before cooking, or those that refuse to open even when “overcooked” that should be automatically avoided. And such mussels are usually detected and discarded by professional chefs). Unopened mussels prepared by a reputable chef, then, may be pried open with the fork and eaten. But ultimately, the true arbiter of a good mussel versus a bad one is the taste buds of the diner. So if the mussel does not taste good, whether presented open or closed, it should not be eaten:  open-and-shut case!  And if a bad oyster, clam, or mussel is inadvertently swallowed before its unsuitable condition could be properly detected, it should be immediately “killed off” by a strong shot of some potent alcohol—rum, vodka, or gin, for example.  Thereafter, a gentleman should hope for the best….

Mussels will be served with an extra plate or bowl into which the empty shells should be placed. Rather than randomly placing them into the bowl or onto the plate (which looks untidy), the shells should be fit into each other, hand-in-glove-like, creating neat stacks.  Any sauce remaining in the dish in which the mussels were served may be eaten, soup-like, with a spoon. Alternatively, sturdy bread such as French bread, speared onto the tines of a fork, may be used to absorb the liquid then eaten.



The Correct Way to Eat Corn-on-the-Cob at the Formal Dinner Table


No reasonable host would serve corn-on-the-cob at a formal dinner. Why not serve corn dogs as well if that is the case? As delicious as it is, corn-on-the-cob is clearly a casual-meal-type food and should be presented at meals consistent with its nature. But who is a gentleman to tell his generous hostess what courses to serve? No gentleman would—of course. Therefore, he must be prepared to correctly eat corn-on-the-cob if it is presented at a formal sit-down. Generally, a considerate host (to the extent that one would consider a host who serves corn-on-the-cob, considerate) will serve the vegetable with cob-holders already inserted into both ends (How considerate!). On other occasions, the little, two-tined implements, sometimes made of sterling silver, are placed on the left side of the plate-setting with the other forks. And when no cob-holders are provided, a gentleman must use both index fingers, with his thumbs serving as additional support, to hold the ends of the cob as he eats the corn. But cob, snob, it should be eaten as follows: Only three or four rows, running half the length of the cob, should be buttered and seasoned at a time. The cob is then picked up, held by the cob-holders or with the fingers as described above, and eaten. Additional butter and seasoning should be applied as described above in intervals as the prepared segments are eaten—as clean as possible—for having to observe another diner’s half-eaten kernels can be most unappetizing. When the entire cob has been eaten clean, or when no more is desired, the cob is placed to the upper left side of the plate from which one is eating, or, preferably, onto the separate plate on which the cob was served. If served with corn-holders, whether pre-inserted or not, they remain inserted in the ears, to be removed by the service staff.

Some guests, for various reasons (at least one being teeth-related), cannot, or prefer not to, eat corn directly from the cob. Such persons should stand the cob up on one end, supported by the fingers (or a cob-holder held in the fingers), in the plate, then and use a sharp knife to cut off three or four rows of kernels at a time. And after applying the desired seasoning, the kernels are conveyed to the mouth with a fork, as one would eat rice or peas.

So the moral of the story is that if a hostess insists on serving garden-fresh corn at a formal dinner, the kernels should be removed from the cobs in the kitchen, for who needs all the table-side drama described above just to enjoy a few, succulent kernels of corn?



The Artful Way to Eat an Artichoke at the Formal Dinner Table


There is art, if not also artifice, in the proper eating of an artichoke. Presented in all its prehistoric-looking, botanical glory, an artichoke, actually the flower bud of the artichoke plant, can prove intimidating or, at best, bewildering, to the novice. Traditionally, the “vegetable,” which resembles a cross between a pine cone and a breadfruit—or a sugar apple on steroids—is boiled or steam-cooked and presented on a salad plate with a separate, little bowl of melted butter or some other sauce or dip. A second salad plate is sometimes presented to serve as a depository for the fibrous remnants of the eaten leaves.

The leaves of an artichoke are always to be plucked off the bud and conveyed to the mouth by the fingers—no matter how formal the occasion. (Thank God for finger bowls!) Beginning at the bottom of the bud, each leaf is individually plucked by its tip. The base of each leaf is then dipped into the provided sauce and placed into the mouth as the tip of the leaf is held fast by the fingers. The succulent base of the leaf is then pulled through slightly clenched front teeth (incisors) so as to separate the flesh from the fibrous portions of the leaf. The fibrous portion of the leaf, still being held by the fingers, is then placed onto the extra plate or towards the upper left side of the plate on which the artichoke is presented if no extra plate has been provided. The process is continued, leaf by leaf, until all the leaves have been consumed and the heart of the bulb, arguably its most delicious part, is revealed.

Held in place by the fork, the hairlike covering of the heart should delicately be scraped away with the knife. At last, the “fond,” the base-core of the heart, is found! It is then eaten with knife and fork, flavored with the sauce.

The Elegant Ritual of the “Cleansing of the Palate” at a Formal Dinner

The Cleansing of the Palate

It is not uncommon at very formal meals where multiple courses are being served, for somewhere midway in the dinner, usually between the fish and meat courses, that a palate-cleanser is served—oftentimes a fruit sorbet (called “sherbet” in the United States) or granité of some sort. Theoretically, it refreshes the mouth and neutralizes the taste buds after the tongue has been teased with the various flavors of the first half of the meal. This mini course, which also prepares the palate for the many flavors to come in the second half of the meal, can be likened to intermission at a theatrical performance, or the changing of ends during a tie-breaker in a tennis match, or perhaps even a recess break in elementary school. But in addition to serving a practical purpose, the course should be remarkable and memorable—like a cameo appearance by a beautiful actress in a Hollywood drama.

The Correct Placement of Silverware When a Diner Must Take Temporary Leave of the Table; at the End of a Course; When Already-used Silverware must be Re-used; and When the Silverware Remains Unused

Placement of Eating Utensils When Taking Temporary Leave of the Table

When a gentleman must take temporary leave of the dining table, he places his silverware onto the dish from which he is eating, towards its right side. The knife is placed to the right of the fork, blade facing inwards (towards the fork), and the fork is placed alongside the knife, to its left, tines upward. Both utensils are aligned vertically. (See above subsection on “The Soup Course” for placement of soup spoons). Other authorities hold that the fork should be placed vertically onto the left side of the dish from which the gentleman is eating, with the knife, blade facing inwards, placed vertically onto the right side of the dish. But as with other rules of etiquette, one general rule is preferred over two or more alternatives, especially when the alternatives give rise to additional issues. For example, with the “fork on the left side of the dish, knife on the right side of the dish” rule, what then is a gentleman to do if he is only using a fork? Place it onto the left side, or onto the right side of the dish? So once again, the “right side only” rule seems more consistent: When using only one eating-implement, be it fork or spoon, the same right-side placement applies—a spoon or a fork being used by itself is simply placed vertically onto the right side of the dish, bowl/tines facing upward. (And contrary to yet other “authorities,” aligning the utensils and placing them vertically onto the center of the dish would be absurd and therefore completely incorrect since it would result in the placement of the utensils atop the uneaten portion of the course, conspicuously—and unappetizingly—awaiting the diner’s return to the table).

And, again, when soup is served in a cup with a spoon, both placed atop a plate—as is correctly the case—the soup spoon should be discretely wiped clean with the lips before being placed onto the plate, vertically at the right side of the cup, the bowl of the spoon facing upwards. The spoon should not be left in the cup. The same rule applies to when soup is served in a soup bowl presented atop a plate. When soup is served in a soup plate, however, the spoon is placed vertically atop the right-side flat surface of the soup plate since the soup plate is likely to be of equal or almost-equal dimensions as the service-plate upon which it sits, thereby making it almost impossible to align the spoon onto the service-plate, at the right side of the soup plate. But as with other soup dishes, the soup spoon should not be left in the soup (unless the soup plate is designed such that its “flat surface” is so slanted as to render the spoon incapable of being securely placed thereon. In that rare instance, the soup spoon must be left in the soup (but towards the right side of the dish)—out of necessity—the way the spoon will also have to be left towards the inside-right-side of the soup plate at the end of the course.

When a spoon and fork are being used to eat spaghetti (as is oftentimes done in the United States, but rarely in Italy) (See “Spaghetti” below) and leave must be taken from the table, the spoon and fork are vertically aligned and placed adjacent to each other onto the right side of the dish, with the spoon to the left side of the fork since when eating spaghetti in such a manner, the spoon is always held in the left hand. Upon the gentleman’s return to the table to resume eating his spaghetti, he simply picks up his utensils and continues eating. (But see below regarding the placement of the spaghetti spoon/fork at the end of the course). A waiter or table-assistant who unwittingly attempts to remove a temporarily unattended, unfinished dish should be advised against doing so by the host or by a diner sitting adjacent to the temporarily absent diner.


The Correct Placement of Eating-Utensils at the End of a Course

How used silverware is to be placed onto the dish at the end of a course is a matter of both form and function. The used eating-utensils should be placed onto the dish, aligned vertically towards the right side of the dish, so that as the table assistant approaches from the right side to retrieve the dish, holding it at its periphery, his thumb can easily secure the silverware, while his four fingers are placed under the dish to steady it from its underside. While some authorities allow for the adjacent, vertical placement of the used silverware in the center of the dish, such a placement is impractical for the person tasked with removing the dish since he is not able to readily secure the silverware with his thumb as the dish is being hoisted and removed. But that addresses only the functional component. In terms of form, the placement of the silverware at the end of a course is inspired by the manner in which the table is set at the commencement of the meal. As such, the knife is placed to the right of the fork, the blade pointing inward, and the fork is placed alongside the knife, tines pointing upward. On the rare occasions where a knife, fork, and spoon are used to eat a particular course (for example, poached pear à la mode), the spoon is placed to the right side of the knife, bowl upwards; and the knife is placed in the middle, blade pointing inward, with the fork next to it at its left, tines upward. (See  also above subsection, the “The Soup Course”; See also below subsection on “How to Eat Certain Foods”—discussion  on “Iced-tea” spoons and straws).

Unlike the placement of the spaghetti spoon-and-fork combination when temporary leave of the table must be taken, at the end of a spaghetti course where both spoon and fork were used, the spoon, its bowl turned upwards, is placed to the adjacent right of the fork, its tines pointing upward, both implements aligned vertically towards the right side of the dish. The rationale for this placement is that at the end of a course, the objective is to return items to the position they occupied at the commencement of the course.  And when a spoon and fork are presented together as the eating-implements for a spaghetti course, or for any other course, the spoon, consistent with table-setting in general, is situated to the right of the fork.


When Already-used Silverware Must Be Re-used for a Subsequent Course

On occasion, due to insufficient silverware, diners are asked to use the same silverware for a subsequent course.  In such unfortunate instances, the eating-implements are correctly placed directly onto the table (if no place-plate has been provided). If a place-plate has been provided, the eating-implements are placed onto the place-plate as described in the various scenarios presented above. When no place-plate is provided, however, and the eating-implements must be placed directly onto the table (if no placemat is available) awaiting the subsequent course, the eating-implements are placed together towards the right side of where the subsequent dish will be placed:  In the case of a knife and fork, the knife is placed vertically with its blade facing the space to be occupied by the dish, with the tines of the fork, facing upward, placed onto the blade-portion of the knife, the fork’s handle laying askew to that of the knife; a single spoon or fork is placed vertically towards the right side of where subsequent dish will be placed, bowl/tines facing upward. Holding one’s already-used silverware in one’s hand awaiting the arrival of the subsequent course is a definite no-no:   It renders one looking ravenous.


Unused Silverware

Any eating-utensil designated for a particular course but not used by the diner should be left on the table, where it will be retrieved by the table assistant when the dishes for the course are being removed, or at the end of the meal when the table is being cleared.


The Proper Way to Taste Food from Another Person’s Dish at a Formal Dining Table

Tasting Another Person’s Food at the Table

At a formal, private dinner, or even a formal, public one, rarely will the occasion arise for one person to taste another person’s food at the table since the same menu is generally served to all. Besides, the notion of “tasting” from another person’s plate in a formal setting simply would not “sit” right with most people—the way one would not drink beer directly from a bottle at a black-tie event. Yes, beer may arguably “taste” better when drunk directly from the bottle, but it certainly would indicate a lack of good “taste” if drunk accordingly in a formal setting. In less formal settings, however, as in restaurants for example, where close friends or couples are dining together and different menu offerings have been selected, the occasion often arises for someone to request or be offered to taste another person’s food. The rules of etiquette do not prohibit such generosity under the circumstances; but there is a right way and there is a wrong way to do it—even between the most intimate of lovers or friends. And a gentleman must know the right way, of course….

The correct way is to use a clean utensil to collect the food to be tasted, then pass the food to the taster, handle first. Expert assistance should be engaged for more complicated transfers of food, however. If a whole, unwanted side-order, for example, is to be given to a dining companion, the table assistant should be summoned to the table, where he should be asked to provide a salad plate-size plate or dish onto which the side-order should be placed. If the request is made at the time the food orders are brought to the table, the table assistant will transfer the side-order. Once eating has commenced, however, the plate should be requested, but the sharer should transfer the side-order himself since it would be inappropriate for a waiter to “meddle” with food that is already being eaten.

Reaching across the table with one’s fork to “taste” food in another person’s plate—not matter how intimate the people may be away from the dining table—is to be avoided. And worse yet, to pick up one’s plate and extend it across the table in order to share or receive a portion of a dish is simply unacceptable at any dinner table, formal or otherwise.

The Order of a Formal Meal–from the last meal served on the RMS Titanic on April 14, 1912, to a formal meal in a modern home

The Order of the Formal Dinner

The order and manner in which food is presented at a formal dinner varies from culture to culture, country to country. And to further complicate matters, the order in which food is presented on the menus of restaurants that offer national cuisines oftentimes varies from the traditional order of food presentation in the respective countries. It is therefore necessary for a modern-day gentleman to have a basic understanding of the various gastronomical traditions of the world if he is to successfully navigate the ever-increasingly eclectic world of social dining. (See chapter, “International Customs”).

In the Gilded Age, it was not uncommon for hostesses to present ten-course meals—with all the required eating and drinking implements proudly presented on the dining table at the commencement of the meal. Some hostesses were renowned for setting their dinner tables with 24 pieces of silver and 10 glasses for each guest. It was a time when less was not more; it was less. The April 12, 1912 dinner on board the RMS Titanic, regarded by many as the final dinner of the Age, featured:

First Course

Hors D’ Oeuvres


Second Course

Consommé Olga

Cream of Barley

Third Course

Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers

Fourth Course

Filet Mignons Lili

Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise

Vegetable Marrow Farci

Fifth Course

Lamb, Mint Sauce

Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce

Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes

Green Peas

Creamed Carrots

Boiled Rice

Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes

Sixth Course

Punch Romaine

Seventh Course

Roast Squabs & Cress

Eight Course

Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette

Ninth Course

Pâté de Foie Gras

Tenth Course

Waldorf Pudding

Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly

Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs

French Ice Cream

Each course was served with a different, complementary wine. And after the Tenth Course, fresh fruits and cheeses were made available. Thereafter, cigars were offered with a choice of coffee, port, or distilled liquors.

Today, however, even the most formal of meals in the finest of homes are limited to six, or, perhaps, seven courses, and no more than three eating implements are presented on each side of the plate setting at the beginning of the meal: The additional implements are brought to the table as needed, when needed.

The Menu Card

Some hosts take delight in surprising their guests with each meal presented. Many guests, however, especially those with modest appetites, prefer to know the scope of the dinner before it begins so that they can take portions—if the dishes are presented à la russe—which will not exhaust their appetites before the culmination of the meal at dessert. And the most practical way to afford guests advance notice of the courses is via menu cards. At large dinners, menu cards, either engraved or written in calligraphy, are placed onto the table, one between every two guests, or sometimes onto each place plate under the napkin. At smaller, private, formal dinners in a home, there is usually one menu card, which is placed before the hostess.

The typical order of a meal in a fine restaurant in the United States is: appetizer, soup, salad, main course (also called the entrée), dessert, and coffee/tea/after-dinner drink. That, however, unbeknownst to many Americans, is not the classic order in which food is to be presented at a formal dinner in Western culture.

A 21st-century, Formal, Six-Course Dinner



Fish Course

Meat or Fowl Course




After-dinner Drink

In some countries, or regions thereof, a sherbet/sorbet/granité is served between the fish and meat/fowl courses to “cleanse the palate.” And long gone are the days when a game course (of some wild meat) would be served after the meat course. Today, if game is to be served, it will be presented as a substitute for the meat/fowl course.

In Italy, one of the founding fathers of Western European culture, the typical order of a formal meal would include a course of pasta (in the south) or risotto (in the north) because of the prominence of those staples in Italian cuisine.

Antipasto (appetizer)


Main Course (Meat, Fish, Poultry)


Assorted Cheeses


Fresh Fruits