The fork hovers.
An eyebrow arches with the proper sense of supplication.
The desire: a morsel of your tuna lying amid a confetti of blood orange segments and mild Fresno chiles.
Just a taste, hmm? Thanks! Oh, um, can I get a little more sauce on that?
In many restaurants — well, OK, not McDonald’s, etc., where curiosity rarely is an issue — snitching food from companions’ plates is a time-honored behavior. If you’ve waffled between ordering the risotto or the polenta, you can always cadge a bite from those who ordered the other.
Ah, but listen to us, loading the dice with talk of “snitching” and “cadging,” as if this is illicit.
“I prefer to call it sharing, or tasting,” said Carol Manning of Minneapolis, a longtime seeker of all the flavors on the table. “I’m just genuinely interested in what everything tastes like, and other people’s food always looks so interesting.”
Her hovering fork also doubles as a boyfriend test.
“If they don’t want to give me a taste of something, or if they’re not interested in what’s on my plate, well, that’s someone I’m not interested in,” she said, finding such incuriosity rather dull, such territoriality rather selfish.
Of the many social crevasses that crease our lives, one of the craggiest separates those who freely snitch and share from those who believe that if you wanted the squid ink pasta, you should have ordered it. (Jeez!)
To snitchers, trading tastes seems harmless. Yet some diners resist, conscious of germs, wary of reaching across wine glasses, or just honestly wanting to enjoy every smidgen of their crème brûlée.
They might steer clear of Kris Hase, Minneapolis, who doesn’t limit her tasting to friends’ entrees, but has eaten off the plates of strangers.
“I always try to foster a sense of community around me,” she said, “and tasting each other’s food does that.”
Sometimes, the effervescent Hase (“I know how to charm people”) even ends up with food thrust upon her. Take the time at Butcher & the Boar in downtown Minneapolis, one of those restaurants where the tables are set so close, just sitting down calls to mind a strand of dental floss.
But such proximity also prompts conviviality, such as with the mother and son at the next table who gave Hase their leftover cornbread in its cast-iron pan.
“We’d just been chatting,” Hase said. “I ask a lot of questions about what people are eating: ‘What did you order? Would you recommend it?’
“They were so excited about how good the food was they wanted to share. That’s how I am, too, so we all had a great time.”
Reading the body language
Manning and Hase each stressed that they never snitch without permission. That would be rude. And they’ve grown adept at reading a companion’s body language.
“The people who sort of cradle their plates — you just don’t go there,” Hase said.
Manning said she gives non-sharers several dining opportunities to say yes before she finally gives up.
“A longtime friend is just so not interested in sharing,” she said, despite repeated forays toward her plate. “But I’ve now given up on asking her.”
A poll on Serious Eats, a popular foodie website, once posed the question: “Do you ask before eating off your friend’s plate?” The response overwhelmingly favored asking first, and also not pouting if you are rebuffed.
Several respondents said they employed the strategy of first offering a bit off their own plate, thus encouraging their companions into offering a taste from theirs. “Sort of passive-aggressive, I suppose,” one noted. “But it works.”
(Her certificate as an honorary Minnesotan is in the mail.)
Another said groups of good friends order expecting a quasi-potluck experience, “passing around bites on the bread plates.” When one woman dines with her husband, “it’s not unusual for us to swap plates midcourse.”
No worries, said Daniel Post. Sorta.
Rules, ragu, relationships
Post is the great-great-grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post, and with his cousin Lizzie Post runs the Emily Post Institute and hosts the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast on American Public Media (infiniteguest.org/awesome-etiquette).
So, is it permissible to share food in a restaurant?
“One of my favorite themes in talking about etiquette is that you have to know the rules to know when to break them,” Post said.
The baseline rule here: You eat off your plate and I eat off mine.
“Having that baseline is important because it helps you get through a meal with more formality.”
But say you’re lunching with a new client and the question of sharing a dessert comes up, he said. He recommends declining, “deferring to that more formal behavior, sticking to the code of conduct I know.”
He quickly added, “But I wouldn’t recommend that for a first date. Ordering a dessert to share may not only be OK and appropriate, but the start of a memory that lasts a lifetime.”
As for the best method of scoring a smidgen of scallop, Post said it’s easier if you proffer a taste and see if it’s reciprocated. At the least, you’ve shown yourself to be a generous soul, which serves a larger goal.
“The way we relate over food is so fundamentally important,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate here. It’s just managing expectations at the table.”
When we share, we care
Indeed, a study in 1997 in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that American college students who shared food were seen as having positive social interactions. Actually feeding food to each other implied a romantic relationship.
Yet the most intimate or heartfelt connections were when one person accepted food that their companion had tasted, bitten or touched — something that researchers called “food consubstantiation,” which pretty much is all the further we need to go on that subject.
Bottom line: When we share, we care.
Still, there are legitimate reasons to keep one’s plate private. Germs, for one.
Manning, a retired internist, said she’s always careful to share tastes from a portion of food she’s not yet touched, and uses clean utensils.
Likewise, she doesn’t share beverages.
And, despite Hase’s theory that food snitching took off in the ’60s era of fondue pots, “what with all those forks flying around,” cultures around the world long have regarded sharing food as a way to strengthen relationships and forge bonds.
Post said he believes that rules of etiquette are founded in consideration, respect and honesty. Thus, snitching with permission is fine, when balanced by offering without sanction.
Hase wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I always offer up as much food as I take,” she said.
Manning agreed. “I can’t think of a time I haven’t offered someone a taste.” Although, she added upon reflection, “sometimes it’s a very little taste.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185