Etiquette Q&A: Bread and Butter Basics

A photo of a bread plate and butter knife

Our etiquette series, which began with several questions related to basic table manners, continued last week with a Q&A focused on table settings. This week, we’re homing in on that topic by concentrating on a part of the dinner table near and dear to the hearts of most Southerners: bread and butter.

By Phyllis Hoffman DePiano

Q: I have always been uncomfortable when a person uses my bread plate by mistake. How do you remedy the situation without embarrassing the one who made the error?

A: The bread plate is always to the above left of the dinner plate. When a bread plate is used for dining at home, most of the time the space between place settings is adequate and so minimizes the problem. I find the situation usually occurs when the table is crowded and place settings tend to run together, which often happens in a restaurant. Nevertheless, the solution is tricky, and you are right—handling it without embarrassing a person is always best.

When a person is right-handed, the natural tendency is to reach right, especially if that person has never learned the position of the bread plate. I usually try to avoid this issue altogether by making a light-hearted statement before the meal begins: “Since we are seated so closely, let me adjust my bread plate so I won’t bump you.” Then I immediately reach to the left and move the plate slightly. If this does not solve the problem, then I quietly ask the waiter for another plate rather than repeat the mistake by reaching to the right for my neighbor’s plate. If the problem occurs while dining at a home, I place my bread on my dinner plate rather than draw attention to someone’s error, possibly causing confusion for the entire table. 

Q: What is the proper way to eat bread and butter?

A: First and foremost, bread should always be taken from the service plate and put on your bread plate (or dinner plate if no bread plate is offered). Bread is never taken directly from the service plate and eaten. Here is the proper way to eat bread and butter:

  • Place your bread on the bread plate.
  • Using the service knife, take a serving of butter from the butter dish, and put the butter on the plate.
  • Break the bread into medium-sized pieces.
  • Butter each piece of bread just before you eat it—do not butter the entire piece before you begin. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, mainly for Southern biscuits and cornbread that are served piping hot. Butter these immediately so that the butter will melt while the bread is hot.
  • Use your individual knife for buttering your bread and never use it to get more butter from the butter dish.
  • Even when the bread is small, it is best to break it before eating it.

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A photo of dinner rolls