THERE IS nothing quite so pleasant in summertime as a bird and bottle, shared with merry friends on the grass, in the shade of an old tree, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves and the chirpings of wildlife all about. Unless it is the same meal, properly served at the dining room table.
The urge to picnic is nearly universal, which means that it annually seizes people who know better. They have discovered, in previous years, that Nature, along with her undeniable charms, also has ants, poison ivy, damp ground and things falling out of trees. And yet they persist in confronting these dangers with no better protection than paper -- paper tablecloths, paper napkins, paper plates. To attack the forces of the universe, armed only with a plastic fork is, in Miss Manners' opinion, quixotic at best.
It is possible to have a reasonably civilized meal on the lap of Nature. But, like the simple pleasure of bouncing a baby on one's own lap, it is foolhardy to attempt such a thing without adequate protection.
The handiest thing to take along a picnic is a butler. This has more uses than a Swiss Army knife. A butler can, for instance, direct the footmen where to place the tables and chairs, and supervise their setting out the linens, silverware and stemmed glasses before unpacking the food hampers.
(Now is the time for letter writers to inform Miss Manners, with some indignation, that many people nowadays do not have either butlers or footmen. Ah, well, children will do just as well for carrying hampers and adquately for fetching. Why it is that people who cannot afford footmen think they can afford children, Miss Manners does not know. In the long run, they are a great deal more expensive.)
Whoever carries them, the hampers must be hampers, not paper shopping bags. A proper hamper may be wicker, wood or the baby's old car bed, and some excellent ones work the off season in the laundry room. The paper bag theory is that there will be nothing to carry on the way back, but when the bag soaks through, one can also travel very light to the picnic spot.
Besides, you need something to carry home the flatware, the glasses and the tablecloth and napkins. It is strange reasoning that makes people associate barbecue sauce with paper plates, grilled steaks with plastic knives and greasy finger food with paper napkins. It is not only Miss Manners' natural elegance that makes her insist on proper tableware through the rigors of rusticity. The open air brings out the natural aggressiveness of food, and the ill-equipped picnicker has little chance of surviving intact.
Miss Manners will now dispose of the disposal problem. We shall not have the landscape the richer for trash as well as the legitimately biodegradable garbage a self-respecting picnic should produce.
Instead of throwing out all the utensils necessary to a picnic, you throw them into the hamper, taking special care to count the number of noses and match it with the number of knives.
Upon reaching civilization once more, you put the napkins in the wash, the plates and flatware and glassware into that marvel of advanced society, the dishwasher. With any luck, you can persuade the footmen to do this before they go off duty, or the children before you go off after them. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
A. My husband holds a city department position. When we attend social functions and he is introduced with me, should I stand up with him, or remain seated?
A. The problem with standing up for an introduction at a social function is that if people do not applaud madly, one is left standing there. A city official could risk it, but the second round of applause for the wife is apt to be perfunctory. Miss manners would suggest a gracious inclination of the head and a proud smile unless the reaction, building to the point where you can call it an ovation, required you to stand.
Q. My husband and I receive letters fortnightly from a person acquainted -- at one time intimately -- with my husband. Although the envelopes are addressed to "Monsieur et Madame ----" the salutation is always "My very dear ----," while the letters speak only, and very personally, to my husband.
In the interest of our relations with the French people, what is, and from whom should come, the correct response?
A. International affairs can be very sensitive, as you know, and Miss Manners recommends handling them with warmth and tact. A kind letter, in the spirit of the letters received is required here. Naturally, as the wife, you will handle the family correspondence that is addressed to you both. Be sure to include your husband's regards.
Q. Is it in good taste to wear earrings to an early morning breakfast?
A. Not with a terry cloth bathrobe. Full daytime wear may include nondangling earrings, but Miss Manners has always thought that earrings, first thing in the morning, show a deplorable lack of faith that the day will bring an exciting telephone call.
Q. If a salad or other part of the meal is served on a bed of lettuce, is it proper to eat that lettuce as part of the meal, or is it more appropriate to leave it untouched on the plate after having consumed whatever was on it? What about the parsley garnish that often accompanies a dish, particularly in restaurants?
What is proper behavior if one absolutely abhors something, let us say for example, ripe olives, but finds it mixed in whatever dish is served at table? Should one be obligated to consume such an item out of politeness? Is it permissible, following the example above, to fish the ripe olives out of the rest of the dish and leave them in a neat little pile by the side of the plate? What if the item in question causes an allergic reaction or raises havoc with one's digestion, liver or whatever? Must one still simply eat it and suffer quietly, or would be permissible then to fish the item out, perhaps with an apology to the host or hostess?
A. Miss Manners blames herself for the absurdity of the current preoccupation with what should or should not be eaten.
Time was when it was considered polite to leave some food on the plate -- "for Miss Manners," as children used to be instructed. Well -- ugh. Miss Manners got tired of eating the leftovers of revolting children, and the style became "cleaning one's plate."
Each of these positions assumes an intense interest in how much people do or do not eat, when everyone knows that it is the society and conversation that is important at dinner parties and other such events, and not the food.
In fact, Miss Manners is rapidly getting to the point of reviving another old rule, which was that one never discussed the food at table, even to praise it. (This rule dates from the time when even moderately well-off people employed cooks, and therefore could take no direct credit for their accomplishments. Miss Manners can just hear the screams of protest from the kitchen-mad hosts and hostesses of today who, having labored all day over a hot pasta machine, want nothing else discussed at their dinner tables. It is just such people who are driving Miss Manners to outlaw food conversation. You know who you are, so please take warning.)
Of course, you can eat lettuce and parsley if you want, and of course, you don't eat something that makes you turn blue and drop dead on the tablecloth. It is not necessary to fish offending objects out -- just leave them where they are. And please raise your attention from your plate to the people around you.
Q. My friend, who is a senior citizen, recently received a letter from a very young woman. It was addressed to "Bertha Smith." My friend was offended, saying it should be addressed to "Mrs. Bertha Smith." I agree with her. I think casualness can be carried too far.
A. miss Manners sees casualness carried too far every day of the week, so you must not think that she is getting on that dreadful bandwagon when she politely begs to differ with you. We are in a state of chaos regarding the use of women's names and titles. Many a widow would be offended to be addressed as "Mrs. Bertha Smith" instead of "Mrs. Bertolt Smith," which is the proper, old-fashioned usage. The strictly correct usage for divorcees is to combine the maiden and married surnames after the title. "Mrs. Bertha Smith" is never correct, threrfore, although it has come into common usage because many people consider the traditional ways too complicated. Undoubtedly this is the state of your friend's correspondent whose solution was to give up title altogether, which is as defensible as your solution. And neither of you really believes she meant to offend, so stop being huffy.