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Hangin’ With Klecko: Learning Napkin Etiquette in Key West

While many Minnesotans spent the last part of winter praying for spring to surface, my wife chose to take matters into her own hands by booking us a week of romance and relaxation in Key West, Florida.

When she announced her plan, I became ecstatic because I’d never been to the Sunshine State, and visiting The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum was on my bucket list.

On the day we toured my favorite writer’s home, I became overwhelmed as our guide told us stories about Ernest’s four wives, 53 polydactyl (six-toed) cats, boxing exploits, African safaris and the infamous backyard urinal.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing room in his Key West home.

Saving the best for last, we got to finish our tour by looking into Hemingway’s writing room, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I got goosebumps when I saw the typewriter “Papa” used to pound out “The Old Man and the Sea.” 

When the tour was over and our group dispersed, it was close to dinner time, but when I tried to submit dining options to my wife, she couldn’t be bothered because she had become engrossed in reading the tombstone of every Hemingway cat that had shed its mortal coil.

While she continued her research, I pulled out a list of romantic restaurants given to me by my jet-setting friends who book my teeth cleaning appointments at Metro Dentalcare-St Paul. The Southernmost Beach Café was their top choice, and with good reason. When we eventually made our way over there, it was close to sunset and people sat quietly sipping cocktails and eating seafood at tables that overlooked a beach of shimmering white sand.

I’m guessing like us, most of the people dining were tourists because as the waves gently lapped against the rocks they created a hypnotic sound, and for a brief moment, each of us realized we were in paradise. But perfection is a difficult state of mind to hold. When the sun finally sank, and the diners started on their second (or third) margarita, informal conversation began to fill the air.

Magically, everyone had become friends.

At the table next to us sat a group of post-middle-aged woman from Amherst, Ohio, who shared colorful drinks adorned with paper umbrellas. Several times throughout my meal these ladies were kind enough to engage my wife and me in conversations they assumed everyone would want to be a part of. 

Eventually, at a moment when nature called, I excused myself as I stood up and neatly hung my napkin across the back of my chair.

When I returned, the first thing I noticed was my wife was smiling bigger than I’d seen her smile in a long time. When I asked what prompted this, I was surprised by her answer: “When you got up to go to the bathroom, your lady friends from Ohio politely commented that hanging a napkin across a chair was poor form. And they expected you to present yourself better. ”

As I picked up the napkin and sat back down, I looked toward our neighboring table. My glance was met with smiles, which seemed to increase as my wife began laughing out loud.

Although I was outnumbered—and outclassed—I tried to defend myself by issuing a logical comment.

“What’s wrong with draping your napkin across the backrest, it’s better than the alternative. I’m not going set it on the part of the chair that comes in contact with a person’s backside.”

The matriarch from the Ohio table explained that protocol demands that when a person is leaving their table momentarily, they need to fold the napkin neatly and leave it to the left of the plate. Apparently that’s a universal signal to waitstaff that you will be coming back.

After processing this, I asked: “I have to actually fold the napkin? What would happen if I just set the napkin down unfolded?”

A different woman from the Ohio table interjected: “That would signify that you were done with your meal.”

Then the interjecting lady explained that correcting people’s manners was something they did when they dined out, and often times their critiques were firmer when alcohol was involved.

Granted I’ve worked in bakeries for most of my life and not restaurants, but you would have thought that I would have run across napkin etiquette. In a last ditch attempt to save face and make sure I wasn’t being subjected to some complex ruse, I whispered to my wife: “You worked in a restaurant—did you know about the napkin rule?”

My wife rolled her eyes and became annoyed that I had become unhinged while lounging in paradise. 

In hopes of putting closure on the topic, she reminded me that she hadn’t worked in a restaurant in more than 30 years, and the last one she worked at wasn’t exactly a fine-dining concept, it was a Pannekoeken Huis where paper napkins were used instead of linens.

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but after our evening of romance was finished and my wife fell asleep, I decided to spend more time in paradise asking Google to impart its napkin wisdom on me. 

Here are just a few more napkin facts:

The napkin should be employed within 10 seconds of sitting down.

Napkins should always rest on your lap; if the napkin is large, fold it in half, placing the fold against your beltline.

Never tuck a napkin into a shirt collar; bibs are for babies.

If your napkin falls underneath the table, it is considered rude to pick it up. Ask your server for a new one.

If you are wearing black, many fine dining restaurants offer black napkins to prevent white lint from compromising your wardrobe.

If your napkin comes equipped with a napkin ring, once the napkin is removed, place the ring to the left of the plate so the server can remove it when they take your order.

When using your napkin, make certain to blot instead of wiping.

The most offensive breach of napkin etiquette is to not use your napkin. 

In closing, I guess this is where I’m supposed to end the story with a clever quip or remembrance of Key West or Ernest Hemingway, but now that several weeks have passed and my tan has begun to fade, I find it curious that my vacation’s highlight has nothing to do with historic landmarks. The part I remember the most is how grateful I am to my wife and my friends from Amherst, Ohio. 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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