10 Polite Ways to Eat Sushi, Wings and Other Tricky Foods

Don’t blow that business lunch, first date, or dinner with your S.O.’s parents. Knowing the proper etiquette for some sticky food situations could save you from making an eating faux pas.

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Proper dining etiquette for spaghetti
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Spaghetti can be a social minefield

If they weren’t animated pups, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp would fail spaghetti-eating etiquette 101. Turns out most humans are eating this famous Italian dish incorrectly, too. “Spaghetti is a difficult food,” warns Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert. “While you would not eat it with your fingers (obviously), using a spoon to twirl it into a basketball mound of noodles is incorrect. Instead, separate two or three strands and twirl it, eating it from the fork.” Another strategy is to avoid it altogether, she says. If pasta is on the menu, she recommends ordering an easier penne or ravioli and to stick with white sauce to avoid visible splatters. Finally, beware of spaghetti al nero di sepia—these inky black strands are not just unwieldy, they’ll turn your teeth a zombie-like shade of charcoal. Order a pale carbonara instead. Spaghetti alla carbonara is preferred by professional chefs when they eat out at Italian restaurants.

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Cooked lobsters
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Avoid the lobster trap

In the 1984 movie Splash, Daryl Hannah plays a beautiful mermaid that goes searching for her true love, Tom Hanks, in Manhattan. Hanks doesn’t suspect that Hannah is a mermaid (she has legs on land), even when she bites into a whole lobster shell at a fancy restaurant. Obviously proper shellfish-eating etiquette is different in her world under the sea. So what’s the right way to eat that crusty crustacean for those of us who’ve got permanent land legs? Gottsman’s website offers this advice: First, twist and pull the large front claws off. Then separate the pieces of the front claws at the joints. Use a nutcracker to crack the larger part of the claw and pull the meat out with a lobster fork. Twist the tail and the body in opposite directions, pulling the tail free. Discard the green gunk; that’s tomalley, the lobster’s liver. Break off the tail flippers and insert your thumb or finger into the flipper end to push the meat out of the tail. Or use a knife to cut the under-shell. Remove the large vein-looking digestive track so you can enjoy the lobster tail. And go ahead and use your fingers to dunk that baby in some butter. You’d be surprised to know that some scientists believe lobsters are biologically immortal—of course, that’s if they don’t end up on someone’s dinner table.

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Baked potatoes with bacon
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Beware of the spud

For a simple veggie, baked potatoes have a lot of rules. In Emily Post’s 1967 book, The Pocket Book of Etiquette, she advises on how to eat a baked potato: “If not otherwise prepared before serving, it is eaten by breaking it in half with the fingers, scooping all the inside of the potato onto the plate with a fork, and then mixing butter, salt, and pepper into it with a fork. But Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of The Etiquette School Of New York, suggests a more modern way to approach the spud. “I would recommend using a knife and fork to cut a baked potato in half—not one’s fingers. Leaving it in the skin, I would put butter on the potato with a knife and mix it in with the fork,” says Napier-Fitzpatrick. “Then, add salt and pepper to the top, as one would with any food on the plate that needed salt and pepper.”

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Salmon sushi rolls
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Sushi is a finger food

Put away the chopsticks; turns out we’re supposed to eat sushi with our fingers, and chopsticks are the equivalent of… shall we dare say it? Using a fork. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Tokyo sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda says picking up that salmon roll with your fingers is correct. And don’t dunk sushi in your soy sauce—dip it. Yasuda says it’s “enough” to taste the soy, then eat it. In any case, soy sauce can add a lot of sodium to your diet, so it’s best to go lightly. Finally, never eat that pickled ginger together with your sushi. Eat it separately. Think of it as the sherbet of a fancy five-course meal—a palate cleanser.

Here’s Why Japanese Children Are the Healthiest in the World.

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Chicken wings
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Winner winner, chicken dinner

In the movie The Help, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Minnie Jackson, one of the more outspoken housekeepers in this Mississippi 1960s setting, but Minnie does know how to cook up some juicy fried chicken. “Fried chicken just tends to make you feel better about life,” Minnie croons (Crisco is her secret). We can’t disagree. But both fried chicken and chicken wings can be a trial to eat at times, so unless you’re devouring a bucket of KFC by yourself, take note. “While out with your family and close friends, hot chicken wings are perfectly fine to order, but skip them when dining with someone you are attempting to impress,” advises Gottsman, who is author of Modern Manners for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Chicken wings are eaten with your fingers, as long as you have plenty of napkins nearby.” People make the mistake of attempting to formalize finger foods by using a knife and fork, she adds, but when ordering foods that would typically be eaten with your fingers, feel free to pick them up and readily indulge. “Just do it safely by ordering things that are not overly laden with sauce or anything gooey or sticky,” Gottsman says. And resist the urge to lick your fingers! KFC’s “Finger Licking Good” is great as a corporate motto, but not as a personal etiquette principal.

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Whole cooked fish
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Bone Fish Grill anyone?

If you come across a fish bone or two, don’t get flustered. “Remove the bones with a fork and set them on the edge of the plate,” says Jayne Becker of the Minnesota Historical Society in the Minnesota Patch. “If you’re eating a finger food, remove it with your fingers and do the same.” Warning: Do not hide the bones, even if they seem gross to look at on the plate. If you hide them in your napkin, a server could end up flinging the bones and hitting someone. Flinging fish bones in polite society is a no-no.

Here are 9 Ways You’ve Been Cooking Fish Completely Wrong.

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Mexican tacos
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Yo quiero tacos

According to Smithsonian Magazine and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, history professor at the University of Minnesota, the origins of the taco are unknown. Pilcher’s best guess is that “it dates back to the 18th century silver mines in Mexico, because in the mines the word ‘taco’ referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. And one of the first types of tacos described in the 19th century is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos.” First mentioned in a 1905 newspaper in the United States, the popularity of tacos has grown ever since. And although we don’t need much instruction on how to eat tacos, there are some etiquette rules to help keep it clean. When it comes to hard shells, it seems obvious that crisp tacos should be eaten with your fingers, as cutting a crisp shell with a knife and fork will almost certainly cause it to crack and crumble. Do use a fork to scoop up any filling that might fall to your plate, adds Etiquettescholar.com. Soft tacos, topped with a sauce, on the other had, may eaten with a knife and fork, though if they’re sans sauce you can also eat them with your fingers.

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Oyster with lemon
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Eating oysters or artichokes hasn’t changed in over 100 years

Back in the day, the English aristocracy ate oysters or artichokes with their hands, and that’s still acceptable today. According to Etiquettescholar.com, when it comes to oysters, it’s fine to pick up the shell with your fingers and suck the meat and juice right off it. Artichokes aren’t much different. Pick up a leaf between your fingers, dip the base in any sauce provided, then use your bottom teeth to scrape off the pulp and place the discarded leaves on the side of your plate. When it comes to the artichoke head, separate the fuzzy portion at the base, then eat the choke with a fork. Proper use of your napkin might also come into play. Back in the Downton Abbey days, a Dowager Countess would fold her napkin in half on her lap and wipe her fingers on the inside of the fold, assuring that a casual observer would only see a clean, white napkin. All that subterfuge might be taking things a bit too far, but it couldn’t hurt if there are guests at the table you want to impress.

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Vanilla ice cream
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Don’t slurp your ice cream

All that silver on the Victorian and Edwardian dinner table was actually designed to slow the eater down, explains the Minnesota Patch. The point of entertaining guests was not the food, but the company. It was common, for instance, for a host to serve ice cream with a sort of spork, almost ensuring that guests would eat it in a dignified manner before it melted—which it would quickly do if one was taking small, graceful bites in between exchanges of clever repartee. Once you could no longer scoop up a glob on your spork, you’d be finished, “no matter how much you wanted to lap it up.”

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Fried asparagus
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There is a right way to eat asparagus, but not everyone knows it

It’s perfectly acceptable to pick up a firm, crisp asparagus with your fingers and eat it. But Gottsman warns, “People may not know this and think you are eating it incorrectly. When in doubt, use a fork. Especially if it’s soft or is covered in sauce.” Etiquettescholar.com agrees that asparagus is traditionally a finger food, and although the English and many other nationalities still see it as such, your future mother-in-law might not agree. Consider the company you’re keeping and err on the safe side.

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

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