DEAR MISS MANNERS: A few nights ago, I had an informal wine and hors d'oeuvres party at my home. ?I was expecting eight to 10 people; when six had arrived, I noticed that though ?everyone was standing around the food, no one had touched any. I didn't want ?to force plates upon people, but I worried that my guests weren't eating ?because no one wanted to be the first person to begin.
So, I cheerfully announced, "Oh, I'll start," and took some food. Everyone else immediately followed my lead. Because I hadn't eaten all day (busy cleaning and ?cooking), I filled my plate a few more times throughout the course of the ?evening -- never taking the last wedge of brie, mind you, but eating enough to keep my growling stomach from interrupting conversation.
When the guests had left, my boyfriend said he was disgusted and appalled at ?my behavior. He claimed that as hostess, I shouldn't have been the first to ?eat, and said that good hosts would have either waited until the guests had ?left before snacking at all, or they would have sneaked bites in the kitchen rather than fill plates in public.
I come from a family where entertaining is casual at best -- guests are often ?encouraged to "help themselves" to the contents of the refrigerator -- and am ?concerned I've done the wrong thing. Can you set me straight?
GENTLE READER: On how to open a buffet table while all the guests cluster foolishly nearby without venturing to begin -- yes. On whether you made it look as if you had been on the verge of starvation -- no. Apparently, your gentleman friend thought you did, and he was there.
Unlike a seated dinner, where the hostess signals the time to begin by picking up her own fork, buffet meals require her to wait until her guests have served themselves. The way to make this happen when they hang back is to hand out two or three plates to those nearest the table and say, motioning to the food, "Please help yourself."
Yes, that is the same phrase you have been using, but in what Miss Manners considers a less hospitable context. Polite people are going to be intimidated by being given the run of the refrigerator without knowing which of the contents you were planning to use for what. Not everyone is like that, of course, but do you really want those who are not messing around in your refrigerator?
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am currently taking time off from teaching at the university in order to write. Sometimes I waitress, but not lately. Living in a small town, I am known by most folks to be working on selling my first novel while writing my second. Still, not many days pass before an acquaintance will ask me, "Have you found a job yet?"
If I take the question seriously and answer that I have a job, they ask what it is, and when I answer, "Writing," they wink and nod like that's either a lie or a good joke. I've thought to be glib, but answering, "You know I'm always working at something" makes me sound like a reprobate.
I'm seeking the middle ground, but can't seem to come up with the right answer myself. Might Miss Manners, ever so good at crafting gently pointed phrases, be of some help? It would be most appreciated.
GENTLE READER: "I've been too busy working to think about it."