Special Feature
An interview with Basic Black co-author Karen Grigsby Bates
by Kate Heyhoe

Part 2: Food, Party
and Dining Faux Pas


KH: Dining offers the opportunity for a world of faux pas—especially when different races come together. Even if the infraction is innocent in intent, sometimes we need to be more sensitive. What are some examples?

Photo: Artichokes—an etiquette lesson in themselves

KGB: Make sure what you're urging upon someone isn't forbidden to him or her: "Oh, come on, a little bite of bacon won't kill you" is not the point to observant Muslims or Jews. Similarly, Hindus would be more comfortable at a dinner that doesn't feature beef as the main course. and many people of African and southern Mediterranean descent are lactose-intolerant; offering them your famous clam chowder or your prize-winning peach ice cream might place them between a rock and a hard place: eat to please the host and suffer agonies afterward, or politely refuse and hurt the host's feelings...

KH: and I would add that many Asians are lactose-intolerant as well. Notice the extreme lack of dairy products in Asian foods?...

There is a warmth and compassion in your advice that is refreshing. Sections on "Welcoming a New Neighbor" and "Looking Out for Each Other" really hit home at a time when we seem more cautious or mistrustful of others. The tips on how to eat artichokes, and the glossary of table accessories are very handy, but some of the most important and unique content centers around how to treat other people—whether you be the host, a dining patron or a guest. Give us some examples or specific situations.

KGB: If you're hosting a party and someone comes who you know doesn't know many people in the room, take a moment to find someone who does, and ask that person to introduce the newcomer to others. If someone is sitting in a corner at a party looking lost, spend little time with her, and unobtrusively ask a few other people to go over and introduce themselves.

If you're the guest and you don't know anyone, introduce yourself to a person who looks like someone you'd like to meet and tell them how you know the hosts. ("Hi, I'm Jeannie Sikes; Sarah and Al were my neighbors when we all lived in Brooklyn...") Often you'll find you strike common ground. Or chat people up at the bar or the buffet table.

KH: Any common faux pas made by cooks or guests we should be aware of?

KGB: Common faux pas made by guests: How about not responding to a dinner invitation? Or sending regrets and then showing up anyway? Or showing up with three extra people? Or forgetting to bring a token for the host or his family? (Coming empty-handed is a definite no-no in our community. It doesn't have to be fancy, it could be homemade jam or lilies from your garden, but people with good home training always, always bring a little something for the host.) Did we mention eating and running? Or expressing—loudly and long—how much you hate something that's on the menu? Or bringing children to an adults-only function, like a cocktail party?

Host faux pas: Underestimating how long it's going to take to cook your meal, leaving everyone waiting—and starving—for two hours. (Or waiting and cross-eyed, if the cocktail half-hour segues into two hours!) Assuming that every guest will love Fluffy or Fido as much as you do. Heaping seconds onto guest's plates when they've told you thanks, but they're stuffed. Inviting exes without warning each that the other will be there. (Our solution: If you're equally friendly with both, tell everyone and let them make the decision. If you're significantly closer to one ex, invite him or her only, especially if it's a small gathering.)

KH: Any real life tales to tell that did not make it into the book?

KGB: Real-life tales that didn't make it into the book: the story of the Philadelphia bridal party that was interrupted by a pager: it was the groom's. (He wasn't a doctor—or a drug dealer. Just some guy who forgot he wasn't indispensable.)

...The bridal shower invitation that specifically asked guests not to bring presents. The guests discovered why when they arrived: a national housewares chain had set up a small kiosk at the shower, and guests could just step up, pick from an array pre-chosen by the bride, write their checks, and voila—no pesky bridal registries, no wrapping, no worrying about whether the bride would like the present! (She really did think she was doing her friends a favor...)

...And the ladies' luncheon guest who asked the person next to her to pass the salt cellar; she'd confused the little crystal bowl with the tiny vermeil spoon for a controlled narcotic substance. (These are not urban legends; they are all true stories...)


Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times
by Karen Grigsby Bates &
Karen Elyse Hudson
Doubleday, 1997, $24.95 US/$32.95 CAN
ISBN 0-385-48434-8

Click to buy The New Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times—Revised Edition


Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times


This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Modified October 2005