By Andy Wickstrom
Knight-Ridder Newspapers


Imagine you are being told that your dining etiquette is less than acceptable. That's the rather insulting premise behind "Table Manners for Everyday use" (41 minutes, $25.00), a new how-to tape that dares to question American eating habits.

It's the sort of presumption that one might find offensive were it not taken by producer and director Elliott Landy. Landy also participates on-screen as an exemplar of the incorrect way to eat and drink, digging carelessly into soup, salad, corn and so forth while his colleague and narrator, Diana Oestreich, shows us the proper way.

Throughout, instruction is juxtaposed with old silent-era snippets, black-and-white newsreels and stock footage that form a humorous counterpoint. For example, when Oestreich warns that fingers and nails ahould be well scrubbed, there's and inset of threatening vampires clutching hands from an old silent reel.

This type of humor (along with repeated scenes of grotesque eating contestants) may be dismissed as juvenile, but the video's intended audience - besides the socially inept and insecure adult - is the poorly trained child. Kids should find Landy at least as amusing as Big Bird.                                                                        »»

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One benefit of Landy's table shenanigans is that we can see precisely why Oestreich's tidy and demure actions are preferable - gross manners are fundamentally unsightly.

You may think cutting a lettuce leaf into a bite-size piece is overly delicate, but it's indefinitely preferable to the sight of a large piece being folded into a gaping mouth.

The lesson sequence approximates the course of a meal: bread and butter, soup, salad and entree, with Landy leading the way as the buffoon. If there's a way to do it wrong, he knows it - touching each roll in the basket, spitting an olive pit into his plate, pushing vegetables with his fingers.

"Table Manners" acknowledges that there's room for disagreement on what constitutes proper behavior. Oestreich, who introduces herself as a native Australian who has spent 28 years in the Unitd States, prefers the European custom of wielding one's fork in the left hand. She lifts her vegetables, and other foods on the back of the tines. The American custom of transferring the fork from the left to right hand before raising it to the mouth is "all right", she says (without much conviction).

When it come to fast food such as burgers and pizza, Oestreich is perhaps too exacting. For a soggy burger she recommends knife and fork, and she thinks an oily pizza slice should be tilted before eating to allow the oil to run off.

Oestreich consistently frowns on handling food without the benefit of utensils. Pick up a steak bone? Never - although holding a smaller chop bone is okay. If you think of bacon as a finger food, think again. Oestreich says one must do the best one can with knife and fork. Even the bite-size cherry tomato can be sliced for a more dainty presentation.

If you've ever felt self-conscious about yur table manners, "Table Manners" is a painless cure. You'll learn to unfold your napkin in your lap, not above the table; to distinguish a fish fork from the others; to squeeze a lemon without squirting it in someone's eye, and to twirl strands of spaghetti in a spoon. And Landy's perpetual sight gags keep it all from being quite as severe as Oestreich might otherwise intend.

Copyright © 2003 Elliott Landy Landyvision Inc.