The Second to Last Bite
In my family, we were taught that its rude to take the last of anything at the table, and the first of something is often reserved for the guest of honour. My brother and I were the first children in the family, so we were often fed the first cuts of holiday ham and prime rib, hot from the oven as my Grandpa carved it. I like the crispy end of the tri-tip, and for years, my mom would cut this end piece off for me as soon as she took it off the grill. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this was her favourite piece too.
Similarly, the last bit of anything is the one that is graciously offered many times to anyone else at the table, even when your mouth is salivating for that last bit of crusty sourdough or the one uneaten helping of potatoes. If you grew up in a family anything like mine, you know that the offer of the last bite is customarily denied. If someone offers the last roll, the odds are in your favour that it is they who want it, and so it is only polite to deny and let them have it. Taking the last of anything is considered rude. This is the indirect linguistic contract set up in families with a dialect like my own.
These rules are easy to follow in one’s own family, where the codes of conduct are known and shared by all. They get a little more stressful when confronted with society at large, where everyone has their own slightly different understanding of table manners. One would imagine that this would be easy to dissect, but these learning experiences from childhood are embedded in other lessons and moments, and often we forget that rules and manners are learned behaviours at all.
Having grown up in different backgrounds makes us interesting, but it also sometimes makes us socially awkward in unknown situations.
Never fear. I have for you a deftly-crafted maneuver to make sure you are a prized dinner guest, and never seen as rude. After all, in some circles, being rude nearly guarantees that at the next dinner, you’ll be the dish.
This solution made itself known to me as my friend Arlo and I devoured a basket of fries. We were both starving after a long day of adventures. Neither of us had eaten yet that day, and frankly, we should probably have ordered two baskets of french fries, but we are both poor graduate students. Eating at a restaurant is a rare treat. As we got closer and closer to the end of the basket and the fries continued to diminish, we both got that hungry glint in our eyes and pasted over it with polite smiles.
It had been silent at our table only moments before, as we stuffed our faces, but we both started talking. Only two fries remained. Arlo plucked up the second to last fry in the basket and put it in his mouth. We stared at the last one.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I already ate the last one.” I eyed him dubiously.
“But — ” there was clearly one fry still left, but he cut me off as I started to voice that.
“That’s the second-to-last one. The one I just ate was the last one.”
His ingenuity was brilliant! By doing this, he ensured that neither of us could be declared impolite, because it allowed me to take the last french fry and him to take the blame for it. Now, instead of either of us being rude, we were just complicit in a brilliant scheme.
And of course, I got to enjoy the second to last french fry with the zest of someone who had taken the last one.