Chop Sticklers

Minding their meal manners are (from left) Aron Danburg, Toya Gerry and Joan Allen.
Josh Harkinson

When Aron Danburg's mom entertains, she becomes Martha Stewart. She wants a formally set table, a nice centerpiece and a respectable loaf of bread. Her son is more of a slacker; he tends to ignore the old-school niceties and hand guests a beer and some munchies.

But when dining at Tay Do, an inexpensive Vietnamese restaurant in Bellaire, it's the younger Danburg who's the stickler for tradition. He has ordered the goi sua ton thit, a salad with crunchy jellyfish, and he is insistent that an accompanying bowl of fish sauce be used properly -- not for tepid dipping.

"Seriously, you want to go ahead and pour it on top," he tells a guest, who is holding the bowl and looking skeptical. "It adds a lot to the flavor."

Danburg didn't become an expert on jellyfish protocol from blue-haired relatives or far-flung travels. He's a white guy who learned it growing up in Bellaire, near Asian-oriented strip malls such as Hong Kong City Mall and Diho Square.

Younger people such as Danburg are rewriting Houston's rules of etiquette. Raised in a fast-food society, they might not pay much heed to the proper flatware with which to eat a cobb salad or the correct way to pass the butter. But increasingly, they know how to hold chopsticks, load bowls with just the right amount of rice and savor a dollop of palak paneer -- even if their American parents still prefer T-bone steaks. Table manners in this city of immigrants are going global.

"We are operating in the same basic fabric as we always have when it comes to manners," says Sally Reynolds, who teaches etiquette at Rice University. "We want to be polite, and we want to be kind." But now, she adds: "That leads us in different directions."

One of those new directions is charted by the path of Tay Do's imperial rolls. Similar to egg rolls, they rotate atop a lazy Susan and into the chopsticks of Korbyn Ero, a 32-year-old white electrical worker. Ero sets a roll inside a leaf of lettuce, along with a pile of bean sprouts and a sprig of cilantro.

Like many younger people, Ero picked up his food skills by chance. He moved to Midtown so he could be close to work, bars and clubs, yet he also was close to many Vietnamese restaurants. He learned the lettuce technique from a friend. At first, "I didn't really know what to do," he says. "I just thought it was a big huge salad with no dressing."

Now he eats Vietnamese three times a week and even has taught the technique to his mother.

Laura Sutherland, who teaches etiquette and protocol at the University of Houston, says young people typically adopt ethnic foods at an early age. They tend to be more adventurous than their parents. And they've grown up in a vastly different cultural context. "Even in the time since I came down here," she says, "the city itself has grown, and as it grows it is so much more ethnically diverse."

Between 1980 and 2000, the white population in Harris County fell, while the Hispanic population tripled and Asian groups grew even faster. Asians moved out of Old Chinatown and into larger neighborhoods such as Alief, where Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants dominate mile upon mile of new retail centers along Beechnut and Bellaire Boulevard.

Danburg attended Bellaire High in the late 1980s and recalls eating unfamiliar foods in the houses of Asian friends: "You want to be polite, because even if you don't recognize the dish -- I mean, yeah, it's pork tongue -- you don't worry about what it's called; you just try it. And then you eat it and it's great. You're like, 'Where can I get this again?' "

He paid more attention to Asian manners when he began eating out with his Vietnamese girlfriend. During one harrowing dinner with her parents, his job as host required him to fill each guest's rice bowl whenever it got low. But he kept filling the bowls too high. "She bumped me on the shoulder and she was like, 'Don't put so much in,' " he says.

For other young Houstonians, the lessons in manners began even earlier. Toya Gerry, a 24-year-old research assistant in the Medical Center, befriended an Ethiopian girl in the third grade. Gerry, who is African-American, traded her packaged Lunchables for stewlike wat, which her friend showed her how to eat with her hands using spongy injera, or flatbread. "She was like, 'Yeah, my parents have a restaurant,' " Gerry recalls, "And I was just like, " 'Give me more food!' "

Danburg, who is 35 and maintains a blog about food, listens to her story across the table while munching on a piece of sizzling "shaking beef." "How cool is that?" he says.

Many young diners learn early on that cosmopolitan cultural knowledge can be a badge of hipness. Danburg learned to use chopsticks, for example, so he could impress a Korean waitress. Yet his parents are less gung ho. "I think they can use them," he says, "but they wouldn't seek them out."

Older people who want to know more about ethnic food need not rely on their kids. They can take an etiquette class from a group called Manners do Matter…And So Do You! Instructor Jinx Chiles says an upcoming course will teach adults about ethnic dining using photographs of different foods.

Yet young people who have shortcomings in traditional manners might face bigger problems; most corporate luncheons don't serve banh mi sandwiches, Reynolds says. Companies often expect new hires to take remedial courses in traditional Western manners.

"The firms do not want to turn them loose until these questions have been clarified," she says. "So when the problems are not addressed, they have to go back and pick it up."

Of course, workers such as Danburg sometimes find they have other options. Danburg probably will have more use for his Asian food skills when he takes a new job in April in Taiwan. "I'm a little bit reluctant to leave," he says. "Now I'm going to have to find all of the good places to eat all over again."

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