The right moves for soup sippers

The Baltimore Sun

At my house, we make soup in the winter.

We do this because, as the French chef Auguste Escoffier once said, "Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day and awakens and refines the appetite."

And we do it because soup is relatively easy to assemble and results in terrific leftovers. Moreover, we make soup because it is warm and January in Baltimore is cold.

I have downed a lot of soup in my time. But until recently, when I became schooled on soup etiquette by reading a variety of soup Web sites, the best being Soupsong, I was unaware of the fine points of genteel soup sipping.

Take, for instance, the question of which way you tilt the bowl when you are pursuing the last drop. There is universal agreement among the doyennes of decorum that a well-mannered eater tips the bowl away from himself.

The outward direction is also the correct direction that my spoon is supposed to travel when it moves through the broth, I learned.

Marjabelle Young Stewart said it best in her 1999 book, Commonsense, comparing the spoon movement to that of a ship leaving a harbor. "We skim our spoon delicately across its surface, as if we were sending a ship out to sea."

Once the spoon has traveled through the soup, Stewart said, we "bring it to our lips and silently sip."

Noise, or the lack thereof, is a big deal in the realm of soup demeanor.

Comedian Bennett Cerf, the only guy I found who had anything to say about soup manners, got off a pretty good line on the subject. "Good manners," Cerf said, is "the noise you don't make when you're eating soup."

One of the appeals of soup for me, and I assume for many others, is its simplicity. It sits in front of you with little hidden.

But, as I learned by reading Soupsong, there are other complex matters of manners surrounding the decorum of downing soup.

For example, take the question of crackers. Is it permissible to smash them and drop them in the broth?

The answer, I read on the Web site, is mostly no. But there are exceptions. It depends on the character of the crackers, and whether or not the soup is chowder.

I have a habit of putting saltines in my soup. It is a behavior scoffed at by Amy Vanderbilt. It is permissible to nibble on the crackers as you sip soup, she wrote. But crumbling and dunking crackers is a crudity.

"Larger soda crackers should not be crumbled into the soup" she said in her 1972 edition of the Complete Book of Etiquette, according to the Soupsong site.

Such crackers, she said, "are best kept on the plate and eaten with the soup. The exception to this would be when eating chowder. In this case, the water biscuits served with it are meant to be crumbled into the soup."

Other exceptions to the no-dunk rule are oyster crackers and croutons. When served with a soup, oyster crackers and croutons are "put in the soup whole," Charlotte Ford wrote in her Guide to Modern Manners, according to the site.

But, she noted, there are two different ways to properly deposit the two additions in the soup.

Because oyster crackers are dry, they are put in the soup with your fingers, according to Ford. However, with croutons, she advised using a spoon, "as they might be buttery."

Finally, I delved into the question of the appropriate parking spot for your soup spoon, the place you let it rest between sips. It depends on how formal the soup-sipping session is.

If it is a formal dinner party where the soup is served in the shallow, rimmed dish known as a soup plate, then the socially approved spoon resting spot is in the soup.

Miss Manners, Judith Martin, who issued this opinion to the readers of the St. John's, Newfoundland, newspaper, The Telegram, said some might think you place the spoon on the plate underneath the soup plate. But those who park their soup spoon on a plate at formal gatherings are ill-informed, she said.

However, she added, in less-formal settings, when soup is served in either bowls or cups with plates underneath them, the correct resting spot for the spoon is on the plates.

Summing up, if you are sipping at a formal dinner party from soup plates, your spoon parks in the soup. If not, your spoon goes on the plate. Whew!

The other night, I sat down in front of a bowl of eggplant soup and practiced my newly learned soup-sipping manners.

Much as I wanted to, I did not crunch my saltines and drop them in the broth. Instead they stayed high and dry on a plate.

As I filled my spoon with soup, I moved it "out to sea," away from my lap.

I sipped my soup silently. I was using a soup plate and pretending I was at a formal dinner party. So in between sips, I parked my spoon in the drink.

Finally, to capture the last drop of the soup, I tipped the bowl, ever so demurely, away from me.

I can't report that these exercises in propriety made the soup taste better. But they did make me feel smug.

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