Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/21/2007 10:46:23 AM ET 2007-06-21T14:46:23

I still chuckle when I think about the time when, during a big family get together, the bite marks on a plastic pomegranate in the decorative fruit basket were traced back to my little cousin.

He’s all grown up now, but still an adventurous eater. And he says that when he’s out on the road, he definitely enjoys trying all sorts of new, preferably non-plastic, foods.

Tasting new foods and eating great meals can be the most memorable aspect of travel. But sometimes, when we’re in a new place or dining out with new people, it’s easy to shy away from unfamiliar or hard-to-eat foods.

For example, I never ate a strawberry until shamed into it on a strawberry-picking date in college. And I never ate a raw oyster until an oyster farmer presented me with a sack of freshly harvested beauties as a welcome gift to my new job in a seafood-rich town. (Both foods made a lasting impression: I married the man who took me strawberry picking and I recently entered — but sorely lost — a timed oyster eating contest.)

On the road, it’s a good idea to take a pass on the fresh poppy-seed bagels if there’s no one around to warn you about all those black seeds that get stuck in your teeth. And a job interview over lunch isn’t a great time to try to master the art of eating sushi with chopsticks. But it can be a real sin to pass up tasty treats such as lobster, gooey onion soup, olives, Greek salads peppered with fresh, sweet, exploding cherry tomatoes and a wide variety of cultural delicacies just because you’re unsure of how to tackle them.

So what’s a hungry, well-mannered traveler to do?

For advice I called on our friend Susan Huston in Dallas. Each year, when Miss Texas heads off to the Miss America pageant, it’s Huston who teaches her how to eat. And for several years Huston served as a dining coach for the rookies on the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Why would Miss Texas and the Texas Rangers need an eating coach? “Because,” says Huston, “these people are in the spotlight all the time and other people notice their dining manners.”  So Huston stops by to give pointers on how handle rubbery chicken and other tough banquet foods, what to do if confronted with new or unfamiliar vittles and how to, for example, eat soup without dribbling on the tablecloth or your clothes.

“Imagine 20 or 25 baseball players dipping their spoons down into their empty bowls, pretending to rake the drip off on the rim of the bowl and repeating my ‘teaching phrase’ out loud, ‘Out like a wave, into the mouth.’ Watching these big guys trying hard not to drip a drop of ‘play’ soup was so cute.”

Cute baseball player or not, anyone might feel as if they’re in the spotlight when confronted with new foods or potentially messy dishes. Michael Stephens, the general manager at the Grand Hyatt DFW at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, sees it all the time. He says it is not unusual for diners at the hotel’s upscale Grand Met restaurant to ask the wait staff for advice on how to use chopsticks or deconstruct an artichoke, what to do with the crunchy part of the shrimp tail (set it aside), and whether or not it’s OK to pick up a piece of pizza with their hands (yup). “We as a hotel are expected to be the expert on these things.”

That’s partly why, he says, this past March the hotel dedicated one of its monthly weekend-long Epicurean Studio sessions to a class on dining etiquette and hard-to-eat foods. On the menu: tricky foods like lobster, French onion soup, ribs and kabobs. Susan Huston was on hand and shared one of her all-purpose rules: “If you’re out at a dinner and served foods you’re not sure about, try to slow down and look around to see what other diners are doing. If there’s no one’s lead to follow, ask your server for advice.”

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In addition to learning how to tackle a lobster, the class addressed the proper way to dispose of pits or other “leftover” bits of food. “The trick is: food should leave your mouth the same way it entered. If you put the food in your mouth with a fork, then you use a fork to take it out. So if you eat an olive in a salad you can, delicately, spit your pit out onto your salad fork and put it on the side of your plate. If you’ve picked up an olive with your fingers from a plate of assorted olives, then you can spit the pit out in your hand and put it on the plate.”

During the summer, kebab and skewered foods are popular at backyard barbecues. But I always wonder: do you eat a kebab the same way you eat corn on the cob or is it better to try to wrestle all the chunks of hot food off the skewer and risk having pieces of meat, fish or vegetables fall on the ground? Huston put the kibosh on the kebab-as-corn-on-the-cob approach, pointing out that the metal skewer might still be piping hot and you’d risk burning your mouth. Instead, she suggests finding a seat at the picnic table and gently easing each barbecued item off the skewer and onto a plate with a fork and knife.

OK, so what about a salad full of cherry tomatoes that you just know will explode and squirt juice across the table when you take a bite? “Relax,” says Huston, “The trick is to take your fork and knife and puncture the tomato on the plate or in the salad bowl. That lets the juice out and then that little old scary tomato will be safe to eat.” That is, of course, if you can corral that dang tomato in the first place.

And, she says, “If you have broccoli or poppy seeds or a bit of plastic pomegranate in your teeth, pray that someone has the courtesy to lean over and quietly let you know. But don’t even think about taking out a toothpick at the table!”

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