Imagine being told that your dining etiquette is less than acceptable. That's the rather insulting premise behind "Table Manners for Everyday Use" (30 minutes, $24.95), a new how-to tape that dares to question American eating habits.
It's the sort of presumption that one might find offensive were it not for the lighthearted approach taken by producer and director Elliott Landy, who's marketing the program on his own home video label, LandyVision.
Landy also participates on-screen as an exemplar of the incorrect way to eat and drink, digging carelessly into soup, salad, corn and so forth while his colleague and narrator, Diana Oestreich, shows us the proper way.
Throughout, instruction is juxtaposed with old silent-era snippets, black-and-white newsreels and stock footage that form a humorous counterpoint. For example, when Oestreich warns that fingers and nails should be well-scrubbed, there's an inset of a threatening vampire's clutching hands from an old silent reel.
This type of humor (along with repeated scenes of grotesque eating contests) may be dismissed as juvenile, but the video's intended audience -- besides the socially inept and insecure adult -- is the poorly trained child. Kids should find Landy at least as amusing as Big Bird.
One benefit of Landy's table shenanigans is that we can see precisely why Oestreich's tidy and demure actions are preferable -- gross manners are fundamentally unsightly. You may think cutting a lettuce leaf into a bite-size piece is overly delicate, but it's infinitely preferable to the sight of a large piece being folded into a gaping mouth.
The lesson sequence approximates the courses of a meal: bread and butter, soup, salad and entree, with Landy leading the way as buffoon. If there's a way to do it wrong, he knows it -- touching each roll in the basket, spitting an olive pit onto his plate, pushing his vegetables with his fingers.
"Table Manners" acknowledges that there's room for disagreement on what constitutes proper behavior. Oestreich, who introduces herself as a native Australian who has spent 18 years in the United States, prefers the European custom of wielding one's fork in the left hand. She lifts her vegetables, and other foods, on the back of the tines. The American custom of transferring the fork from left to right hand before raising it to the mouth is "all right," she says (without much conviction).
When it comes to fast food such as burgers and pizza, Oestreich is perhaps too exacting. For a soggy burger she recommends knife and fork, and she thinks an oily pizza slice should be tilted before eating to allow the liquid to run off.
Oestreich consistently frowns on handling food without benefit of utensils. Pick up a steak bone? Never -- although holding a smaller chop bone is okay. If you think of bacon as finger food, think again. Oestreich says one must do the best one can with knife and fork. Even the bite-size cherry tomato can be sliced for a more dainty presentation.
If you've ever felt self-conscious about your table manners, "Table Manners" is a painless cure. You'll learn to unfold your napkin in your lap, not above the table; to distinguish a fish fork from the others; to squeeze a lemon without squirting it in someone's eye, and to twirl strands of spaghetti in a spoon. And Landy's perpetual sight gags keep it all from being quite as severe as Oestreich might otherwise intend.
Where to get tapes: Because LandyVision is a small publisher with a specialized title, its original marketing plan calls for putting "Table Manners for Everyday Use" in gift shops, libraries and schools. To learn where the cassette can be found in your area, write to LandyVision Inc., 1173A Second Ave., Suite 379, New York, N.Y. 10021.