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Family-style follies

Mark J. DrozdowskiThe next time you're planning a banquet and decide on a "family-style" meal, do me a favor and leave me off the invite list.

I recently attended such a function. It was a lovely event, a celebration of our kid's championship soccer season. Our whole family was there. Lots of whole families were there. Hence, I suppose, the family-style service. One big, happy, hungry family.

The meal started off in usual fashion. They brought us salads and a basket of rolls. We each had our own salad served to us individually. The rolls made their way around the table. I'm not sure if convention dictates a clockwise or counterclockwise rotation, but we improvised and all was well.

When the waitress returned to retrieve our plates, my wife's, almost full, was whisked away without comment, while mine, empty, prompted an "Are you done with that, sir?" inquiry. I said no, I'd like to stare at it awhile in fond remembrance of what had been there.

Around the same time, other servers began presenting the main course. They brought out a series of platters featuring mounded portions of roast beef, pasta, carrots, mashed potatoes and some purple and red concoction that bore a vague resemblance to beets.

Another platter contained an aromatic whitefish identified by the waitress as "scrod." Those living outside New England, thinking they've somehow been missing out on an epicurean delight, might suddenly feel compelled to rush to their local seafood market and request a pound or two of scrod. In turn, they'll likely receive a rather quizzical look. I've been deep-sea fishing on a couple of occasions and have yet to hear an old salty type claim he's trolling for scrod. Scrod, of course, is a made-up word, a portmanteau referencing an indefinable whitefish that could be haddock, cod, hake, pollock, shark, guppy, piranha, Mekong catfish or something else that swims and turns white when cooked. Perhaps the "s" stands for "seems to be." In any case, I passed on the scrod, much like I would if the server brought me a mysterious beef-like slab and called it "smeat."

As the waiters and waitresses carried out the platters, a second group of wait staff was busy erecting scaffolding as the table's centerpiece. The platters, you see, were roughly the size of small toboggans and wouldn't comfortably fit around the table. Instead, they were arranged vertically along this scaffolding, with the farthest dishes landing some 42 feet beyond one's reach. It did not rotate, so if you wanted, say, the beets, you had to politely ask someone on the opposite side of the table to climb the scaffolding, retrieve the beets and send them around the table in your direction.

When the meal first arrived, we passed the platters to each other as swiftly and delicately as possible under the circumstances, considering that each weighed approximately 16 pounds. Some went clockwise, while others traveled the opposite way. The inevitable logjam landed with me, with the carrots to my left and the scrod to my right, both held by people eager to grab hold of the roast beef I was forking onto my plate.

Under such intense pressure, I would normally become anxious and flummoxed, but I was determined to get my fair share of the roast beef. The problem was that I wasn't sure exactly how much that should be. I tried to quickly calculate the amount of roast beef divided by the number of people around the table, figuring that I held in my hands the sum total of roast beef we'd be receiving. Seconds wouldn't be forthcoming. This was our table's allotment of roast beef, period, and my task was to take only what was rightfully mine and not a morsel more.

Upon finishing, I then had to determine which way to pass the roast beef, given that I was the first one to encounter it. Whichever way it went, the person on my opposite side would face the harsh reality of being the last person to have it and would be subject to everyone else's faulty math and questionable portion decisions. Would there even be any left? I saw the desperation and longing etched on each candidate's face and contemplated my decision carefully.

I chose counterclockwise, passing the roast beef to my right and adding further insult to the chap on my left by exchanging his carrots for the platter of scrod. He seemed crestfallen and determined to exact his revenge, a plot he would carry out moments later.

Meanwhile, now that all the platters had been passed around and returned to their various stations along the scaffolding, we were ready to eat. Unfortunately, the time it took us to navigate this elaborate process allowed our food to grow cold. I wondered how we could have expedited matters and gotten to our meals in a more timely fashion. Perhaps there was another way to serve food, keep it warm and let people take portions absent the burden of advanced calculus.

I envisioned a long table with various kinds of food laid out in warm pans. There would be plenty for all. When a pan ran low, servers would refill it with fresh food. People would grab a plate and make their way down this table, taking as much of a given item as they pleased. Sure, they might have to wait in line a bit, but let's say we make this table accessible from both sides to move things along twice as fast. That way, you could get whatever food you want and return to your seat in a timely fashion, before it all got cold. And to top things off, we'd give this new dining method a fancy French name, like "buffet."

As inelegant and cattle-herding as it might often seem, the buffet works better than the family-style scoop-and-pass. Of course, both rank behind the traditional "plated" meal, in which you receive your very own dinner served to you with the understanding that this is your meal and yours alone, not to be shared, divided or passed to anyone else and to be eaten free of the guilt that you may have exceeded your fair portion.

In any event, let's return to our scorned Scrodman, who since we left him has been planning his evil plot for revenge. It seems Scrodman wants a second heaping helping of mashed potatoes because the initial mound wasn't nearly enough. He retrieves the mashed potato platter from the scaffolding, scoops up a dollop the size of a volleyball and blorps it onto his plate. To extract the reluctant potatoes still sticking to the serving spoon, he taps the spoon on his plate several times. He then puts the spoon back into the platter, takes another dollop and repeats the tapping on his plate.

Now, for all intents and purposes, the mashed potatoes are off limits. They belong solely to Scrodman. The serving spoon touched his dirty plate, which had been touched several times by his dirty fork, and was returned to the community mashed potatoes. He might as well have stuck his tongue into the potatoes and swirled it around. Touching the spoon to a clean plate when starting things off is all well and good, but once that plate has been violated in such a manner, it is a steaming germfest. That is why my invention of a buffet would require you to choose a clean plate each time you return to the trough. Tolerating such behavior at home among my own family is troubling enough, but I refuse to engage in spit-swapping with a total stranger. This, I am certain, is exactly how Scrodman anticipated my reaction. His plot was complete.

Thankfully, dessert was served to us individually. I didn't have to contend with Scrodman triple-dipping his spoon into a shared vat of ice cream, licking it clean each time. Some people just don't get family-style.

Neither do I, really. I do have enough horse sense to know what constitutes proper etiquette, yet I find this serving method taxing. At best, it's cumbersome and inefficient; at worst, it's dining Darwinism and an opportunity for social Neanderthals to spoil it for the rest of us.

So the next time you're planning an event and consider the family-style meal, think again. And whatever you do, don't serve scrod.

- Mark J. Drozdowski

Mark J. Drozdowski is a writer, humorist and aspiring pundit. He was a columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education for nine years and currently writes a humor column, "Special Edification," for Inside Higher Ed. His writing has appeared inThe New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, theBaltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and Salon, among other publications and websites. He blogs at, and you can follow him on Twitter @drdroz.

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