Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Teaspoon

One long time reader recently told me that my columns were getting too heavy. I can overlook the fact that the venue was my dinner table, where the reader was a guest. But what did register is that there is a noticeable difference between the straight etiquette columns and those that stretch the readers’ minds. And so, as a gesture of gratitude to this faithful reader, here is a column of a lighter nature.

Today I want to address the teaspoon. I noticed, read and commented on an Internet discussion about the teaspoon. The gist of the dialogue was “why are teaspoons placed furthest to the right when setting a table?” The correct answer to the query is that the teaspoon does not belong in a place setting. Customarily the teaspoon is brought with the teacup and saucer. If banquet setting is used, whereby the teacup is part of the place setting, then the teaspoon is placed on the saucer, not in the usual cutlery line-up.

Many restaurants and home kitchens use teaspoons for many reasons other than quietly stirring a cup of tea. Teaspoons are used in place of other spoons – soup spoons, dessert spoons, fruit spoons, etc. For proper meal service, however, the teaspoon would not make an appearance. There is a common misconception that a teaspoon (or a tablespoon, if no teaspoon is to be found) should be part of every place setting. If there is no purpose for the spoon then no spoon should be set.

The spoon, when it teams up with its friends, the fork and the knife, actually lays out a roadmap for the impending meal. The diner will know what to expect for a meal by the cutlery selected and how it is arranged. The setting is placed so that the diner begins on his or her far right and/or far left of the array of cutlery and work one’s way inward toward the plates as the courses proceed. Obviously, if a teaspoon were to be interspersed anywhere in the line-up, an astute diner would notice such a faux pas.

Not everyone has a complete flatware service, so we substitute where we must. If a teaspoon is the only size in your drawer, then so be it. The teaspoon rules! If however, there is also a tablespoon, consider using that for soup, dessert, or spaghetti twirling. But under no circumstances should anyone place a teaspoon (or any other piece of flatware) on the table if it is not needed to eat the meal.

In the discussion among the etiquette experts, one person suggested that perhaps the teaspoon was there for the sorbet course, customarily served just prior to the entrée, and following the salad course. Sorbet is served to clear the palate between different courses and is usually eaten with a teaspoon, which is placed on the saucer that accompanies the sorbet flute.

In the end, the teaspoon plays different roles in different situations. In restaurants, for the sake of efficiency, the errant teaspoon is to be expected and is used at the diner’s discretion. At home, there is no reason not to set the table properly, using only the cutlery needed at each meal time.

And for those wanting the finer points, teaspoons come in two sizes, thanks to those creative Victorians. In sterling silver, each one weighs in at a hefty one full troy ounce. The larger of the teaspoons, called oddly enough – a teaspoon, is used at breakfast where the teacup is often larger than the teacups used for afternoon tea. And yes, you guessed it; the smaller teaspoon is called an afternoon teaspoon. It should not be used in place of the sugar spoon for helping yourself to sugar from the sugar bowl, unless of course there is no sugar spoon, which is of course a very serious error in etiquette. The teaspoon is never to be used to ring out a teabag – or even poke at a teabag believing that such a gesture will produce stronger tea faster. Clanging the teaspoon against the teacup to stir its contents is bad form. It is a polite instrument for carefully and quietly sipping tea that is too hot to drink from the cup. It is not, however, a means of slurping one's tea.

So there you have it – the simple teaspoon. It’s best used for what it was made – tea. One final etiquette note – it is definitely wrong to eat rice or peas with a spoon in traditional Western dining, unless you are under six years of age.

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