For all the Salt in the World

Restaurant Etiquette

There I sit, calm as you please, about to lay into a nicely done and ample portion of steak in an expensive and quite good restaurant in Wellington Island, when the young woman seated next to me inquires after the salt. I searched for the saltshaker among the plate and crystal, flowers and candles, but none is to be found. A small oversight, doubtless. I ask our waiter, a tall and rather well set fellow, for salt for our table, and, in a somewhat dubious foreign accent, he replies, “I am sorry sir, but the chef do not permit salt at the table.” For the next quarter of a minute, I raced my mind to come up with a perfect and unpleasant reply to this prattle. But on this occasion, I was neither quick nor clever enough. So when told that the chef does not permit salt at the table, my face replied, in italics, an empty “O”.

Ought I to have been insulted by their desalinization program? I do not think an insult was intended. Certainly there was nothing personal about it; I, after all, did not require any salt, but found the food splendid as it came to the table. No, I took it, if not as a personal insult, then as a strong gesture – even, it does not seem to me going too far to say, a somewhat bullying gesture – that called for a strong response. When a chef tells you, in effect, that his food is so perfectly prepared that only a man with an aluminium palate could possibly need to add salt to it, then that chef should have something said to him in the best Fort Kochi accent that I can muster. And that, is the lowest that I can possibly get. I stand up, rolling up sleeves.

Do not create a scene. A voice of reason calls out. Hers. The woman beside me, the instigator, proving yet again that salt and women are the roots of all evil. A fleeting anger surged through me. I do not create a scene. I have no love for doing so. But with the passing of years, and the acquisition of greater confidence (or is it the simple loss of tact?), my feeling is that certain scenes are unavoidable, some absolutely cry out to be played, and still others are eluded only at the cost of self-contempt. Lots of rudeness, nastiness, touchiness in the world, it is all part, I fear, of living in a city – Kochi. So when an auto driver attempts to cheat me on a fare, or an academic behaves snobbishly, or a person in a position of temporary power over me acts badly, I take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and to myself mutter, “Ready when you are, Ronnet.” Well that is what I call myself in times such as this. Ronnet Claw. Used fairly frequently, when the bad guys in World of Warcraft create a scene and I am called to slay them all with my kraken-spine sword.

As in another age one needed to know how to wield a weapon if one travelled the Delhi highways, so today one needs to acquire the ability to wield the put-down if one is to be assured reasonably safe passage in the contemporary world. Many of us doubtless prefer to think otherwise – to think that good manners and goodwill shall win the day. Even practitioners of old-world courtesies understood the need for the put-down and that it must be delivered in person, not devised while taking a bath and forgotten. Malice formulated in tranquillity is art of a lower kind than that exercised. I do not think of myself as slow witted, but I do, apparently, need time to compose.

Where I grew up, wit was valued much more than learning; in the list of masculine virtues, wit followed only physical courage and athletic prowess. In those days, with a quick tongue, I could destroy a bully in fewer than thirty words, leaving him stammering in his own verbal ineptitude. In its way, it was a feeling of power. It was in a feeling of that same power that I hoped to leave the hotel tonight.

But that day, at Wellington Island, with rolled sleeves and a tongue on its toes to throw some Fort Kochi accent, I stood and watched past the young waiter, towards the other end of the hall flanked by silk decorates and golden torches, towards where an old couple were seated and from the looks of it they were celebrating their anniversary, alone. I used to get excited at the prospect of committing a resounding put-down, but not at the expense of ruining an old couple’s evening. Frankly, I am only the put-down artist I believe I am, in Warcraft, where I am a giant with a krakenspine sword, who could take more than a good punch in the eye. So I thanked the waiter and returned to my meal, which had by then, gone severely cold. The rest of the evening was spent thinking what it would look like if I drove to this hotel tomorrow, head to their kitchen, and drop a twenty five pound of salt at the feet of the chef and cry out, “What’s shaking baby?”

This article was published in FWD Life Magazine in their September edition.

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