I walked into that restaurant, trying not to show my trepidation of the unblemished surroundings. I held my head high, I looked the part, and I’d done my research (The protocol is to use the utensils from the outside in.). Much like Alex, his family turned out to be wonderful people. They were great conversationalists, highly interesting, and far from pretentious. My nerves calmed shortly after the introductions and the first glass of wine.
It didn’t take particularly long to discover how truly out of my element I was; actually, it took the arrival of my Caesar salad. It arrived, looking delicious and immaculate, with the exception of two thin strips of an unidentified substance placed in an X directly on top, as if it was mocking my inferior knowledge by marking the unknown. I leaned toward Alex, attempting to smile sweetly and asked in a hushed voice, “What the hell is that?” He told me they were anchovies, and I suppose my next inquiry was written on my face because I needn’t ask. He explained they were usually in the dressing, but these anchovies are much fresher. I’ve never claimed to be an aficionado at fine dining, and this was totally new to me. He told me I am “precious,” which he says all the time, and I’m confident is his way of saying, “you’re mildly retarded by my standards and I find it amusing.”
Next, I tried an artichoke, which I was certain I could handle without incident. I was very wrong. All artichokes I had encountered previously were on a pizza, in a dip, or in a jar, so I had actually only had artichoke hearts and had never seen a full artichoke in all its glory. Confident in my fine dining endeavor, I put an entire leaf in my mouth and chewed. And chewed. And chewed some more. Oh, hell. There was no way I was going to be able to swallow this thing. I tried to bite it into smaller increments so I could swallow the leaf, but that was unsuccessful. I tried to chew it into a compressed ball to get it down, but then I imagined it springing open once I swallowed, leading to an airway occlusion, a raucous scene, and a blatant display of my ineptitude. Furthermore, an ambulance would likely be called, and my own coworkers would show up to my aid; not only would I be an embarrassment to my boyfriend, but I’d never hear the end of it at work. I decided my best course of action was to discreetly spit it into my napkin and hope no one noted my incompetence. I thought I’d gotten away with it, until I saw Alex chuckling in my periphery.
I ate a good portion of my pasta without any major glitches, and Alex’s step-dad offered to let me try his quail, which I’d only had once before and was littered with shotgun pellets. He placed the leg on my plate, which was no more than two inches long. I made a valiant effort at proper etiquette, with a failed attempt at cutting the meat off the bone with utensils. I suppose my furrowed brow displayed my frustration with the damn bird, because Alex’s step-dad said, “Tiffany, it’s okay. Just pick it up and eat it.” I did as the man said, and as it turns out, quail is mighty tasty, despite the fact I don’t possess the good manners to eat it correctly.
Once the dinner was over, I rose to say my goodbyes and express my gratitude at meeting these fine people, when I saw a chewed up ball of artichoke leaf on the floor near my foot. Once I got a good view of it, I was damn glad I didn’t swallow it, as I was more certain than ever it would have caused a medical emergency. I kicked it under the table before anyone else saw the evidence and made a silent vow to myself to gain some class.
The next day I called my mom to tell her about my fine dining experience. In between fits of hysterical laughter, she told me about having dinner with some of the highballers in my dad’s family when she was younger. At the age of 19, my mom had never had shrimp, so she had no idea if she liked it. My dad’s family insisted that she try the cocktail shrimp, and she was trying to display an heir of classiness, much like I was. After her shrimp encounter, my dad’s family asked her how she liked it. She told them, “I don’t think I care for shrimp. It was awfully crunchy.” Similar to how I now know not to try to eat an entire artichoke leaf, my mom learned to peel shrimp before she eats it. My mom told me they never held the incident against her, and I’m pretty confident Alex’s family won’t either.