Everything on the table

Clandestine facts about the mysteries of dining that will have you contemplating your next fancy dinner

Imminently quotable and always fascinating, Diana Vreeland’s range of ideas published in her famous “Why Don’t You” column—capricious as they were—were mostly grounded in practicality. “They were all very tried and true ideas, mind you,” Vreeland once said, “‘Wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France.’ That was one of them.”

In honor of Mrs. Vreeland, her ingenious column, the formalities and the refined art of dining, and in contemplation of the many mysteries of the table that have been perplexing us since revelations like, “‘corked wine’ is wine lingo for stale wine” and “using a toothpick at the table is rude as it is gauche,” we compiled some little known facts on why we eat what we eat, why we eat the way we eat, and how Marie Antoinette would eat a banana, if she lived long enough to try.

Dim sum is meant to touch the heart, not fill the stomach

Dim sum in Cantonese literally means “touch the heart” and was originally served as a light snack during afternoon tea (yum cha) in Cantonese dining culture. To this day, authentic Cantonese restaurants only serve dim sum in the morning until the afternoon. If you want to find the best dim sum in the city don’t wait until dinner. And stop eating it with rice.


Red wine should be drunk at room temperature

Warm temperature helps release the glorious smells of an exquisite bottle of red. When it’s served cold or chilled like white wine and champagne, the acidic and tannic flavors will obscure the red wine’s fruity aroma. Don’t even think about popping ice cubes into your glass. Winemakers didn’t go to great lengths to age wines only for it to be watered down and wasted. You’ll be wasting hard earned money, too.

A variety of Chinese tea is more expensive than a brand new sedan

Do you think that the $8,000-High Tea of the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is posh? The Da Hong Pao Oolong tea harvested from the Wuyi Mountain in Fujian, China sells for thousands of dollars per kilogram, the most expensive tea in the world.


Why don’t you use a gigantic shell instead of a bucket to ice your champagne? —Diana Vreeland


Drinking from a teacup with the pinky up is inappropriate

Holding a teacup with the pinky finger extended is improper and, in some social settings, considered rude. The gesture dates back from 17th century when tea was first imported to England from China. Back then tea was so expensive only rich families could afford it and they drank it from imported Chinese teacups, which did not have handles, hence the pinky in the air. The gesture became a symbol of wealth and eventually turned into a symbol of pretentiousness when Westerners made their own teacups with handles.


Worthy vessels like porcelain flatware and crystal stemware can enhance the taste of a food or drink

Among the most expensive champagne glasses in the world blinged out with 1700 white and pink diamonds, by Australian designer John Calleija 

People, just like lab rats, can be psychologically influenced by heft and sight when eating or drinking. Subconsciously, eating from a heavy flatware made of porcelain will not only influence your brain that the food tastes more expensive, you also tend to think it’s more delicious and filling. This, however, is only partly true with crystal stemware. Drinking from an expensive stemmed crystal helps bring out more flavor from wines and spirits, because crystal companies, longer steeped in fine tradition, take more care in crafting the shape and the size of the bowl. The larger the bowl, the better the wine’s aroma can circulate and manifest itself. Also, the density of the crystal makes a huge difference. It can keep the wine from getting warm for whites and getting cold for reds. We’re sure glassware companies also apply these principles. But if you have a choice between crystal and glass, why on earth would you choose glass.


Napkins should stay on your laps unless you’re wearing Valentino, et al.

The napkin is a gentle and delicate piece of cloth that comes with the formalities of fine dining. It’s improper and rather vulgar to tuck a napkin into your collar or dress as a bib. But if you’re having a potentially messy meal and you’re wearing vintage, a one off, borrowed, or next season’s couture, feel free to do so. It’s not the most elegant look but we’d understand. Dab your lips gently with the napkin. Don’t wipe.


Pushing the spoon away from you when scooping soup will minimize the likelihood of soup dripping down your chin

For kids and first timers, this would seem like the opposite of what you should do. But it is. Spooning soup away from you allows drippings to end up back in the bowl instead of on your chin, shirt, or lap. Oh, and take small sips. Never slurp, unless eating noodles in Japan.


The proper way to eat pizza is to loosely fold a slice in half to keep the edges from dripping

Pizza is an informal food best eaten with the fingers. But if a slice of pizza is served on a plate, at a formal dining table, as a main course, use silverware. When in doubt, follow the host.


Marie Antoinette refused to eat in public and never had a chance to eat a banana

But if she did, she’d probably eat it in her private apartments—where she ate all her meals privately. Marie Antoinette hated eating in court, as was the custom for the royalty in Versailles. When having dinner with King Louis XVI at the Salon of the Grand Couvert, facing an audience, the Queen would not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin. This might have been one of the many reasons the French wanted her head off.


It’s okay to remove a fish bone out of your mouth by hand if it’s not possible to leave the table to remove it in the powder room

As a rule, you must remove unwanted food parcels from your mouth using the same utensil you used to put it in. If that’s not possible, like with a fish bone, cover your mouth with your left hand and remove it with your right. Place the fishbone on the side of your plate and refrain from telling your fellow diners that you found a bone in your fish. They don’t really care about the bone as long as you aren’t choking on it.