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Manner Matters: Bread and Butter Basics

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Dear Molly,

I have heard conflicting advice about this subject and would appreciate your opinion.

When served bread or rolls or biscuits, what is the proper way to butter and then eat the item? If given a bread plate, do you put a pat of butter on the plate, then spread on the whole item, or just break or tear off a bite-sized piece and butter that only before eating it? What if you aren't given a bread plate and there is little room on your dinner plate?

Thanks for your help.

Sincerely,
Maybe I Should Just Give Up Carbs

Dear Maybe I Should Just Give Up Carbs,

Like many aspects of table manners, the answer to this varies by culture and country. When I first lived in France, I found it terribly difficult to just put my bread on the table next to my plate. Every bone in my Midwestern-raised body that had been drilled to never put food on the table rebelled. Then I got used to it. The human spirit is an amazing thing.

In the U.S., traditional table manners have a very clear way for dealing with bread and butter that I'm happy to explain. Warning: it's going to sound fussy, but stick with me, there is a logic to it.

First, if there is a butter knife paired with the butter dish, use that to transfer a pat or knob of butter to the bread plate, if you have one, or the side of the dinner plate if there isn't a separate bread plate. (By the way, your bread plate is the small one to the left of your dinner plate.) If you have a butter knife with your bread plate, use that to transfer the butter. No butter knife? Use your table knife.

Set your piece of bread on the bread plate as well (obvious, but bears mentioning).

Now here is the tricky part for some people. Tear off a bite-size piece of bread. Hold the piece with your fingers (not in the palm of your hand and not on the plate), use your knife to butter it, and eat it. Repeat with remaining bread as you like.

Why butter and eat pieces instead of buttering the whole thing and then taking bites? Simple: In formal dining situations you eat any food you bring to your mouth. You don't slurp some soup out of a spoon, you eat all of the soup in the bowl of the spoon at once. You don't pick up a big piece of lamb with a fork and then take bites of it, you cut off a bite-size piece, bring that piece to your mouth, put the whole piece in your mouth, chew, and swallow. Same with the bread.

Plus, this way, there's no chance of cross-contamination between your mouth, the bread, and the knife on the chance that you require more butter. Rather genius, isn't it?

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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.

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