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In Good Taste: Getting 'Dressed Down' At The Dinner Table

"Sunshine Teas in Kew Gardens," c. 1920
Flickr - Photos of the Past/Public Domain
"Sunshine Teas in Kew Gardens," c. 1920

Dear Etta Kate:

While dining with friends, I received an embarrassing dressing down. I ordered a salad dressed lightly. Instead, a generous dish of very chunky bleu cheese was nestled into the bowl. A woman at my table commented loudly about how much dressing I was having. I replied softly that I used only a tiny bit and set the rest aside. She exclaimed, “But imagine how much fat you are eating!" just as the server delivered her meal: a fried clam cake on a huge bun, with a plate full of French fries. 

I felt like a target for her barbs, which continued. Later in the meal she gasped, “Oh my God! I cannot believe you ate all that dressing!” I showed “Barb” the nearly full dish that I’d pushed aside. (I refrained from mentioning that her fat intake far exceeded mine, especially since she ordered ice cream for dessert, which I declined.) 

It was humiliating. I had to strain not to comment on her hypocrisy. Was there a polite way to derail her?

Sincerely, Dressed Down in Salad Town

Dear Dressed Down:

Etta Kate wonders why you continue this relationship, but must leave those complex decisions to you. However, she will happily address this breach of dining etiquette.

One’s disdain of another’s food choices should never be verbalized at the table or anywhere else. This is a type of food shaming.

In your situation, the puzzling crux of the crouton is the extreme contrast in fat levels between her meal and yours. “Barb’s” addition of fries to her fatty fishcake while attacking your Spartan salad was certainly ironic. Kudos to you for not making a retaliatory kill-strike about the obvious contrast. Your restraint was admirable, but I worry it didn’t make for good digestion, now did it?

Barb is a bully, and bullies rely on those they humiliate to be weak or too polite to confront them. A bully will often divert negative attention from her own shortcomings by highlighting the perceived shortcomings of another.

Food bullies are no different. It is quite unacceptable for someone to opine about what should or should not be eaten by another, whether that proclamation comes from a virtuous, elite eater, or from a hypocrite who cannot manage to meet, much less exceed, her own proclaimed standards. 

Perhaps your friend is unaware of how belittling her comments were? She might be struggling with issues of her own and may have thoughtlessly projected onto you her own failure to rise above temptation; however, while that would mitigate her behavior it does not excuse it. 

An irrevocable rule to remember is this: Refrain from remarking on the meal except in a complimentary way – atmospheric poisoning can be as unpleasant as actual food poisoning.  

Etta Kate hopes your friend behaves more kindly to you next time. If not, she hopes you will stay out of reach of the tines of Barb’s sharply-forked critiques.

Here’s to happy dining, dear readers!

Etta Kate is the nom de plume of a business consultant who maintains anonymity to protect her clients’ privacy. If you have a question about food and dining etiquette, Etta Kate will be happy to help. You can post your messages in the comments section of this page.