On today's menus, the choice is between being a pig or a monster.
In some kinds of restaurants, the menu offers you heaping platters of jumbo-size items, juicy, aromatic and smothered or swimming in creamy or crispy or crunchy additions. In another sort, it invites you to devour the helpless, apparently plucked before its time, as everything is described as being baby, tiny, petit or miniature.
Naturally, it is these downsized versions that are considered upscale. But holding the adjectives does not seem to be a choice in any establishment.
Miss Manners realizes that commercial menus are intended as advertising, a literary form not generally characterized by restraint. Therefore, the question of taste in the etiquette sense, as opposed to taste in the sense of revving up the appetite (beyond what it must already be to have delivered itself to a restaurant), might not apply.
However, there are restaurants that do wish to appear tasteful in both senses, harking back to the time when their predecessors strove to approximate grand-scale private service. These are the ones that refer to themselves as "elegant," which is their first mistake. "Elegant," used in regard to just about anything except mathematical solutions, is a tip-off to persnickety people that something is the opposite of what it pretends to be.
"Entree" is another unfortunate menu word. Taken from the stupefyingly long list of courses put before our hardier predecessors, it is not the main course, but the course before the main course. The typical true entree is sweetbreads, or perhaps eels, which may not be what today's diners have in mind.
It would be a good idea to skip the temptation to gussy up menus with high school French, other than terms that have passed into the international culinary vocabulary (such as hors d'oeuvre, unfortunately not always presented with its correct spelling). French restaurants would be granted an exception if American establishments abroad were accorded equal respect.
Briticisms are also dangerous. Many a highfalutin establishment now offers "high tea," in ignorance of the fact that the term refers to nursery supper, while the afternoon event with dainty sandwiches and scones is merely called "tea."
There are even some perfectly good words from American English that are unsafe in the hands of menu writers. "Fresh," in regard to orange juice, no longer means that it comes directly from the orange; now it is "freshly squeezed," and even that is suspect. Besides, a menu on which some items are labeled "fresh" suggests that the others are not.
Miss Manners is concerned because, as the households that are needed in order to put on formal dinners have become rare, restaurant service has come to be considered the highest surviving standard.
Oddly, even the compromises that restaurants must make because their clients, unlike guests, make their own choices from the menu -- and it is not seemly to leave hungry people to chew on their napkins while dinner is being cooked -- are thought to be correct. These include supplying bread and butter, although these are not part of a correct formal dinner, and serving the salad course before the main course.
However, she sees no necessity to bring kitchen jargon to the table.
Dear Miss Manners:
Before baseball season starts, could you please answer a question for me. I was taught many years ago that one does not applaud the singing or playing of our national anthem, but instead treats it with reverence as one would a hymn. Am I correct?
Yes, but try and explain that to people who recognize no greater authority than entertainment, and therefore know of no higher show of reverence than applause.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c)2003, Judith Martin