Who’s it going to be this year, d’you think? Will it be uncle Fred, drinking a little too much and hitting on the lady of the house, despite the fact her husband is sitting right there?
Will it be one of the twins, perhaps, getting into the punch and throwing up all over the white shag rug?
Or maybe it will be you this time, doing something unspeakable and becoming the talk of that minefield of family events, the annual Christmas dinner.
I’m not talking about using the wrong fork for the salad kind of faux pas here, but rather, something so way out there it becomes family lore.
I could be seen as a questionable choice when looking for advice on fine dining etiquette, but I’ve been around awhile and I’ve picked up a couple of tips along the way that might be of help.
The first of these I learned one cold December on Long Beach. It was 1988 and an oil spill in Washington State had just begun to foul the Island’s west coast, so I raced up to Cortes Island to pick up a couple of my buddies and we headed across the Island – part of a wave of volunteer muck rakers.
The first morning after we arrived we grabbed our rakes and shovels and bags and headed for Wickaninnish Beach. There were lots of people there, raking blobs of oil off the sand and it looked pretty organized.
We got to work.
At noon, one of the people who seemed to know what he was doing blew a whistle and called everybody in. Lunch time.
We lined up and were handed a bag lunch. We began to eat as we headed back to our rakes, but before we got far, the whistle blew again to call everyone back.
“We’re short three lunches,” the guy said.
Then he looked at me.
“Who the hell are you?”
Turns out, all the other workers weren’t volunteers at all, but were being paid by a contractor and we were eating somebody else’s lunch.
Rule number one: Make sure the food you’re eating is actually for you.
Once you’ve passed that test, you’re not home free yet. Other factors come into play — like timing.
I learned that temporal lesson in Quesnel when I arrived quite late to cover the annual Amnesty International dinner and talk.
The dissertation was already well underway when I rolled in, but there was still quite a bit of food left. Mmmm samosas!
It was quite the trick to balance my samosa mountain as I took my seat, but I managed somehow. As the speaker droned on I turned on my recorder and noshed right down. The samosas were good, too, and I made my appreciation known to the organizer, Maggie, raising one of them in salute.
Mmmm mmmm good!
The speech ended and then Maggie took the microphone.
“Thank you very much for that,” she said. “Thank you, everyone for coming and now please enjoy some samosas … if there’s any left.”
Rule number two: Make sure it’s an eat-talk, rather than a talk-eat event before you begin to gorge, because, you know what? No matter how complimentary you are to the chef, you’re in for some serious doghouse time at best if you get it wrong.
At worst, you’ll be the one they still snicker about years later.
“Oh yes, I remember great grandpa Neil. Did you ever hear about the time …”