Butter Me Up

Dear Helena,

I just don’t know what the right thing to do is when I use my bread plate. Do I take a big scoop of butter right up front and keep it on the plate? Do I butter the whole piece of bread or roll at once? Cut a roll in half? Butter as I bite? Butter little pieces that I break off? Help me decode the bread plate. —Confused

Dear Confused,

First, take a portion of butter and put it on your bread plate. That way, you don’t have to keep digging into the communal dish, and possibly blocking other diners’ access to it.

You’re supposed to tear off and butter one piece of bread from your serving at a time. That’s what Emily Post’s Etiquette recommends, and modern etiquette coaches agree. Gloria Starr, president of Global Success Strategies Inc., which offers image consultation and etiquette coaching, declares, “Picking up your entire roll to take a bite lacks class.” Starr recently taught seminars at King Abdullah’s palace in Saudi Arabia, although, she says, she didn’t need to offer any coaching on this particular topic. “The princesses all learned to butter their bread correctly in Europe.”

The rule is meant to make sure you don’t look greedy. As Starr explains, “It’s for the same reason you shouldn’t gulp an entire glass of water or wine.” Roger Rice, restaurant manager at New York’s 21 Club, says: “If you butter your bread all at once, it’s like you’re making a sandwich. Bread is supposed to be an accompaniment to your meal.”

On a practical level, taking a bite out of a larger piece of bread can be messy: You could send baguette crumbs flying. If it’s rustic peasant bread, you might need to gnaw at it. Plus, tearing the bread into pieces on your plate allows you to regulate the size of your mouthful. Annabel Day, a director with Jon D. Williams Cotillions, which offers dance and etiquette education, has a cautionary tale. “One of our students thought he’d pick up his whole piece of bread at once. He took too big a bite, started laughing, and then started to choke. He needed the Heimlich maneuver. The bread hit another child in the face … and his knife flew out to the side and hit his partner.”

So eat your bread piece by piece. That way, you won’t bite off more than you can chew. And you’ll likely eat less of it, which means you’ll have plenty of appetite left for your entrée.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.