At one point in the classic movie Battleground, a lieutenant inquires about the location of a strategic bridge. When a sentry stammers uncertainly, the officer snaps, "You ought to be sure of things, soldier," before leading his squad into the darkness.
The lieutenant and his squad are Germans, by the way, cunningly dressed in GI uniforms.
We mention this for three reasons: First, it's on our minds. The Burning Question crew spent a recent Saturday night immersed in the movie, repeating Ricardo Montalban's death scene over and over for our own amusement. Few cinematic moments bring such pleasure. It also reinforces the notion that Germans still work as sinister masterminds of evil, although we're not sure why. They're a decent and orderly people, on the whole, and their interest in acquiring and stowing away great works of art deserves our admiration. The periodic invasions of France hardly seem worth noting. Finally, and more to the point, it reminds us of our willingness as humans to deceive others.
You see, when the Western world abandoned the rigid class structure so entrenched for centuries, social standing became a thing of conjecture rather than birth. As a result, anyone can strive for status or, barring wealth, at least act the part. In other words, we hope that a Rolex, a Mont Blanc, a set of Pings or a BMW will disguise our social shortcomings. And it works, often all the way to the top. Research conducted by the American Management Association reveals that 70 percent of decisions made by corporate executives turn out to be bad ones.
Much of this effort at pretense is intended merely to impress strangers. Men, for example, never ask for directions. We don't mind winding up in Mexia when dinner plans were for Chez Gerard on McKinney Avenue, as long as gas station attendants, skateboarding teen-agers and convenience store clerks never learn of our failure.
Not that we speak from experience.
This same dynamic works in restaurants. Confronted by unfamiliar foods, diners commit any number of faux pas rather than admit ignorance.
Waitstaff and bartenders around the Dallas area tell of patrons who boast loudly of expertise in food, wines or liquors. "It's theater, and your audience is everybody in the room," explains Matthew, the surnameless Samba Room bartender. "Nobody knows how much you know about anything unless you articulate it."
Unfortunately, as Chris Michael of Bali Bar points out, "the thing that people in the industry find humorous is the patron who pretends to know but doesn't." In other words, each time we fumble a bit of sushi with our chopsticks, some waiter silently assails our failure to commit ritual suicide.
Thus this week's Burning Question--What's the difference between snobbery and appreciation?--misses the point. What we really want to know is how to effectively feign comfort in all culinary situations, how to navigate wine presentation and caviar and the cheese course without actually spending time in an English boarding school, how to act the part of a scion. So the more pertinent question is this: How do we go about impressing the waitstaff with our expertise when we're all really just products of grade inflation?
"Not everybody knows the same level of etiquette," says Robert Smith, wine director at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.
Wine presentation trips up more would-be snobs than any other element of the fine dining experience. When sommeliers first show the wine, restaurant patrons merely glance at the bottle. Yet Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's, reminds us that wine presentation serves a purpose. "You need to look at it to see if it's correct," he says, pointing out that many vintages bear similar labels. Sometimes, he adds, restaurant staff members pull the wrong bottle--information that prompted the Burning Question crew to order dozens of $50 wines in the hopes that servers would bring us a Patrus or Chateau Y'Quem by mistake. Alas, our unerring servers left us with only a vicious red wine hangover and a whopping bill that may require another one of those chats with our editor.
But the most common mistake occurs when sommeliers hand over the cork.
An estimated 20 percent of all fine dining patrons will sniff the cork after servers place it on the table. "That's how you can tell someone's pretending to be a wine snob," Smith says with a laugh. Patrons in the know will briefly examine the cork and squeeze the damp end. "Look at the cork, squeeze the damp end, set it down, and that's the end of it," he adds. "The sommelier will know that you know what you're doing."
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There's a point to all this squeezing, of course. "If the cork's brittle, the wine might be aerated," Lincicome says.
It's not just wine that exposes our pretentiousness. Crawfish, crab legs, sushi, edamame or anything eaten with chopsticks also confounds snob wannabes. "The truth is, there's just too much to know," Michael points out, and it must be so; we soiled a Thomas Pink tie while stabbing at a plate of kung pao with our chopsticks, and MSG just eats right through silk. Shellie McCasland, bartender at Ciudad, walked us through the tequila lexicon--anejos, reposados, golds, silvers and such--while ruminating on the ignorance that causes people to shoot the sipping tequilas. "People will order a pint of Guinness," says Ian Green, bartender at The Londoner, of the legendary stout often poured in two stages. "You pour the first part, they're waiting maybe 15 seconds, and they'll say, 'Where's my beer?' You know they don't drink Guinness."
"People don't want to be embarrassed," McCasland notes, "but they don't ask questions."
We thought about that as we drove back from Mexia. Knowledgeable waitstaff and bartenders are a resource, a means to overcome ignorance. "No one is offended by someone asking them a question," Lincicome agrees. "Use the expertise of the people in the industry and don't be afraid of how you look to your date. I'd much rather have people learn to do it correctly than pretend."