Dave Barry

Classic '98: Mind your P's and Q's and teas

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, February 15, 1998.

Recently, I took part in a High Tea, which is a ritualistic British type of light meal involving a large quantity of etiquette.

Generally, I do not get involved with any level of tea, even Low Tea.

Generally, when I am in the market for an afternoon beverage ritual, the one I select is Cold Beer. But in this case I had High Tea, because I was invited by famous etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, who is on a lifelong crusade to get Americans to use good table manners and, for God's sake, take off their baseball caps indoors. She had come to Miami to promote her book, ''The New Etiquette'' (St. Martin's Press).

I got to know Marjabelle in 1989, when she released her annual survey listing the Top Ten Most-Polite Cities, and the No. 3 city was -- get ready -- New York. This surprised me, because I have lived in New York, and I know for a fact that during rush hour you cannot get into a subway car without the aid of a machete. So I called up Marjabelle to ask her, politely, if she was out of her mind. But she turned out to be a perfectly sane, relentlessly cheerful lady who believes in saying nice things about everybody, including New Yorkers, and who believes that the most important thing in the world is good manners. Do you remember the plane that crashed in the Andes, and the survivors had no food? I'm not saying that if Marjabelle had been there, those people would not have eaten their deceased fellow passengers. But I am saying that they would have used the proper utensils.

I met Marjabelle for High Tea at a restaurant in the Marriott Hotel in downtown Miami. When I arrived, Marjabelle was busily instructing the staff on how to set up the table. The key ingredient turns out to be doilies. I estimate that there were 300 doilies of various sizes deployed on the table, underneath a vast array of teapots, little plates, cups, saucers and spoons.

For all I know, Marjabelle was also sitting on a doily, although, of course, I was too polite to ask.

Marjabelle introduced me to her friend, Dorel Eaton, and we chatted about Miami. Marjabelle said Miami had come ''pretty close'' to making her 1998 most-polite-cities list. I said I thought that was pretty bizarre, unless the key criterion was cleanliness of handguns. Dorel agreed with me. She said to Marjabelle: ''I think the people here are mean-spirited.'' Then she said: ''Ouch!'' Then she said to me: ``She pinched me under the table!''

Marjabelle continued to smile at me with radiant politeness.

Next, we had our tea and our tea sandwiches, which are cute sandwiches too small to be seen by the naked eye, although you still have to make them last two bites, according to Marjabelle. Also, you need to lift your teacup in a certain way so as to indicate that you are a classy individual.

While we ate, we discussed current events. Marjabelle told me that a medical journal recently had reported that ''people with beautiful manners don't get colds.'' As she explained it, ``It's the immune system that's affected. It drains out, and they don't get colds!''

I asked her what she thought of the movie ``Titanic.''

''It was a great etiquette lesson,'' she said.

I asked her how she handles rude motorists.

''If they give you a bad signal -- you know, that naughty thing they do -- you just blow them a kiss and drive on,'' she said.

''I don't think in Miami you should blow them a kiss,'' observed Dorel.

I asked Marjabelle what she thought was the biggest problem facing the nation.

''I still think it's the way we hold the knife and fork,'' she said, and she was not kidding. She gave me a detailed lesson, and I found that I have many problems with my technique. Among other things, I've been using the shovel method, and making my turn way too early; I also tend to saw the food, rather than stroke it.

Knife and fork usage turns out to be an extremely complex topic. The main thing to remember is: Whatever way you're doing it now, it's wrong.

At the end of our High Tea, Larry Kenny, the chef who had prepared our sandwiches, came out to see how everything was. We got to talking, and Larry told us that he also plays blues harmonica, and he's trying to market a pilot TV show called 'Larry Kenny's Rock `n' Roll Kitchen.'' The idea is that each week he would have guest musicians perform songs and prepare their favorite dishes. (''On today's show, Ozzy Osbourne will show us how to make Roast Head of Bat.'' )

Marjabelle, who thinks pretty much everything is wonderful, said she thought this concept was wonderful. So do I; if you are a TV producer, I urge you to contact Larry and take him to lunch. Make sure there are plenty of doilies.