There's nothing much new about manners (or the lack of them) except that corporations are now dishing out big bucks to hire consultants to come in and teach their young executives not to eat peas with a knife. The need for this arises, says the modern theory, because former hippies, yippies and love children didn't care a fig about manners at the time when they should have been learning them. Now they are all corporate bankers who can make a deal in a jiffy but can't keep their elbows off the table.
A Los Angeles etiquette consultant recently went so far as to blame this on the fact that today's yuppies grew up eating dinner in front of the television. This struck a chord with me because I was never allowed to eat dinner in front of the television, and as a mother I have always reflexively flicked off the tube when the soup's on, but never knew quite why. Now that I do know why, I can be self-important about it.
But how does one tame the little savages who think that dinnertime is only for fueling up and that superhero play may be continued on the kitchen floor between bites of macaroni and cheese?
One idea that will instill a sense of occasion into children is to throw a kiddie tea party, preferably coed, so that the little girls' better graces will prevail upon the boys. Ideally, the children should be between 5 and 7 years old, and there shouldn't be too many of them, maybe four or five.
Neighborhood children may be invited by note (is somebody learning to write at your house?) and they should not be discouraged from dressing up (one mother who received such a note from her daughter's schoolmate at a tony private school dashed out and bought her 6-year-old a $60 Adolfo hat, but this hardly seems necessary). When the local branch of our library gave a Peter Rabbit Tea Pary for the story-hour habitue's recently, some of the little girls even wore white gloves.
What makes a tea party uniquely childlike is a sense of scale -- everything should be child-sized.
If it's unmistakably their party, it's up to them to behave. Their good manners will be their own decision, and peer pressure on the manners front is far more effective than harping from their parents.
They should have a little table and child-sized chairs, perhaps set up outside so that the squirrels can help clean up later. There should be a little cloth or placemats (paper or plastic will do) and a little centerpiece in a basket. Most importantly, the food should be small, because as we all know, children will eat almost anything if it is of the proper size. My children, for example, will eat any amount of yogurt as long as it comes in those pricey teeny-weeny containers, but no yogurt at all when it's transferred from a pint-sized container into a dish.
This doesn't mean that they'll eat liver pa te' on little crackers or even (yuk, it's green) cucumber sandwiches, but there are lots of good alternatives that kids can help make in advance.
Most children won't want real tea, so brew up one pot (no choices) of a fruity herbal tea, sweeten it, and then let it cool to lukewarm. Serve in those demitasse cups (unless they're antiques) that you never know what to do with or have each child bring his own miniature cup. Mom can pass the fruit cakes and sandwiches and each child should load up his own paper party plate.
Don't expect too much -- if you get 15 minutes of polite conversation before they all split for the swings, you're doing well. And if it all seems like a lot of trouble -- well, that's what manners are, that's what ceremonies are, and that's what memories are made of. Do you really want Xerox to have to hire some consultant to teach your child to hold a tea cup? CREAM CHEESE AND JELLY TEA SANDWICHES (Makes 6 little tea sandwiches)
6 slices fine-grained white bread
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons grape jelly
Remove the crusts from the bread. Spread 3 slices with cream cheese, then jelly, and top with last 3 slices. Roll carefully with a rolling pin to flatten the sandwiches. Use small cookie cutters to cut out shapes, 2 per sandwich. PEANUT BUTTER AND BACON TEA SANDWICHES (Makes 8 open-face sandwiches)
2 slices white toast
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 slices bacon, crumbled
Slice the crusts off the bread, spread with peanut butter and top with bacon. Cut each toast into 4 squares. CELERY BITES (12 servings)
2 celery stalks
1/2 apple, chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoons seedless raisins, chopped
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Wash and trim stalks and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 12). Mix remaining ingredients together in a bowl and spoon into celery pieces. Cover and chill for 1 hour. TINY STUFFED TOMATOES (12 servings)
12 cherry tomatoes
3/4 cup cooked, finely chopped chicken
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon horseradish
3 parsley sprigs
With a very sharp knife, slice tops off tomatoes.
Scoop out pulp and discard. Turn tomatoes upside down on paper towels to drain. Meanwhile, combine chicken, sour cream and horseradish. Stuff tomatoes with chicken mixture with the tip of a spoon. Chop leafy part of parsley very finely and sprinkle on top. ORANGE COOKIES (Makes 60 cookies)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup flaked coconut
Cream butter, shortening and sugar together until fluffy. Add extract, orange rind and egg. Add flour, salt, baking powder and coconut. Mix well. Shape dough into 2 rolls approximately 1 1/2-by-7-inches on waxed paper or plastic wrap, and wrap tightly. Chill in refrigerator overnight or freeze.
Next day (if frozen you can pull out the roll anytime), cut into 1/4-inch slices and bake at 400 degrees until edges are brown, about 10 minutes. From "Lunches to Go," Barron's Easy Cooking Series by Janeen Sarlin, $4.95