To Tuck or not to tuck—that is the question. O comrades! Warriors! Thracians! (said Spartacus). And—Trenchermen! (says Hickman): I call upon you to assert your inalienable rights as free men. Proudly take your napkin in hand and tuck it in your collar—with utter disregard of the dictates of Emily Post, the etiquette pronouncer! A gastronomer without napkin tucked under his chin is like a catcher without chest protector, a football player without shoulder pads, or a hunter, on a covey rise, with an unloaded gun.
Now, there are various and sundry types of tuckers. Take the military variety—between the second and third buttons of the shirt—who are only partially protected. Why be half safe? There is no strategic reason for leaving such wide areas open for infiltration. Once there flourished a proud breed known as vest tuckers. Men of ample girth and great competitors at the festive board they were, such as Diamond Jim Brady and John L. Sullivan—names to conjure with. But time, tide and a vestless era have practically erased this vintage, except for Phi Beta Kappa men, who are not to be confused with these greats. At best they are low-button tuckers, because it is imperative that the keys be shown above the napkin line.
Much in this same category is the bow-tie tribe. For the most part they are extremely dull and disinterested eaters. They don't tuck—at least no higher than the belt line—and yet are not sporting enough to let their cravats take the "calculated risk." They are neither fish nor fowl. I refer to them as "white shirt" eaters. Outstanding among this order are Coaches Frank Leahy and Earl Blaik—strange task fellows, to say the least. Actually, they aren't taking any chances at all, because the beautiful brown hue of sauce diable Escoffier or sauce maison is as far removed from their repasts as a losing football season. They think only of tackles and touchdowns, and for the record it must be stated that this inattentiveness has, at times, brought on a rebellious attitude from their uninspired gastric juices and enzymes.
The direct antithesis of this school are the bib-wearing extroverts. No doubt this apparel offers perfect protection, but there is something repugnant in being laced in. The ritual of having it tied is overly ostentatious. After all, we under-the-chin tuckers do have pride in our technique and accomplishment. Then, too, few places outside of nurseries are equipped with bibs.
At times, through the force of circumstances, I have had to forego tucking. I have spoken at innumerable athletic banquets—banquet is the most misleading word I know; smoker or get-together would be more apt—where there were only small paper napkins available. These, of course, are worse than useless. Ordinarily my procedure in a case like this is to eat previously and during the dinner dally with the cold fried chicken, construct miniature mountains of the cold mashed potatoes with my fork or count the canned peas on my plate. This little game I have found to be interesting and informative.
Yet at certain stops my alleged gustatory prowess has preceded me, and the powers that be will have the better part of a steer or a whole suckling pig delivered to my place on the dais with full pomp and ceremony. This is an embarrassing situation, but the cash customers have paid to see the show. I carry three handkerchiefs with me at all times just for this type of emergency. One to blow; one to show, and one extra-large size to tuck in.
But why take chances? Why not be at ease? A large linen napkin tucked under the chin will solve all your problems and, please, none of these dainty frayed-edge luncheon napkins. They just won't do the job.
I'm rather proud of my progress in this project. Toots Shor, proprietor of the Shor A.C., was a wary, half-worried tucker with an inferiority complex until I proved to him conclusively that steaks and silk ties don't blend well. I have converted another famous restaurateur, John Martin of Bear Mountain Inn. He now tucks with the best of them. I can't rightfully claim Gene Leone of Leone's restaurant, because he comes from a long line of tuck-in men; the same goes for Don (Silk Stockings) Ameche and Eddie Arcaro, the latter pound for pound one of the greatest little gourmands in the world.
Yet it hasn't always been peaches and cream. Headwaiters and captains in strange places have given me that persona non grata glance and even on my native heath I have been subjected to scrutiny. But when I sit down to a bountiful dinner with such stout tuckers as Willard Mullin, Lou Little, Steve Owen and Jack Lavelle, casually unfold my napkin, delicately place a corner between forefinger and thumb (don't be boorish; it is absolutely verboten to circle the neck, barber shop style—you are not getting a haircut), gently tuck it over the tie knot and inside the collar and, provided that too much starch has not been used, arrange a graceful drape to the lap—at such a moment I realize that all is right with the world and that my missionary work has not been in vain. Let's face it. I don't have enough lap on which to safely place a napkin, and even Emily Post says: "...It is impossible to imagine that etiquette should wish to conserve the picture of 'gentlemen on all fours' as a concluding ceremony at dinners." To which I say, Amen, and let's all tuck in.