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Hey, wait: That's my Napkin of Shame

December 4, 2007 |  7:43 am

"Ask not for whom the Napkin of Shame comes. Sooner or later, it will come for you."

I don't know how this Nov. 20 item by Frank Bruni on the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog got by me (especially because it was blogged to death by other food bloggers), but once I saw it, I was riveted in the way only authorial pride can rivet. "I suppose I knew it already," Bruni wrote, "but a recent visit to the restaurant Fiamma in SoHo hammered home this lesson: Ask not for whom the Napkin of Shame comes. Sooner or later, it will come for you.

"What in the world am I talking about?" Bruni continued. "What’s up with this upper case Napkin and why is it a badge of uppercase Shame? Excellent questions, with answers that have nothing to do with keyboard problems.The Napkin of Shame, as I have come to think of it, is part of a fancy-restaurant ritual I’ve never made peace with. The Napkin of Shame is what a server carries to a table on which a section of the cloth has been splashed with sauce or speckled with wine. A server unfurls the Napkin of Shame and stretches it over the soiled terrain, a bit of patchwork that makes the table look clean again."

Very nicely said, Mr. Bruni. But that's my Napkin of Shame. At least I wrote about it, upper case and all, in my 1999 book "American Appetite." OK, so the book is out of print, so it won't be so easy for you to check it out. Touché. Anyway, it's right there on page 266. I included it as part of an anecdote about my husband being made to borrow a restaurant tie at Bouley in New York. "And there's nothing more embarrassing," I concluded, "than a restaurant tie, unless it's receiving the Napkin of Shame." (Note the use of upper case.) Then there's a footnote, explaining what it is.

Yes, I know that ideas are out there in the collective unconscious, and that the same idea can occur to dozens of people at once. That's why I expected that if I Googled the phrase, I'd get a grillion hits. But I didn't -- I just got 423, and almost all of them referred to Bruni's item. (One leads to a blog called Ashkeling, on which an undated entry recounts a visit to El Bulli in which the Napkin of Shame is called upon to cover up some kind of basil foam incident. Another refers to an Amazon reader review of my book -- see! I'm not making it up.) I'm not suggesting Mr. Bruni ever read my book -- hardly anyone did, or it wouldn't be out of print! But you have to admit, that's some coincidence.

It's probably my own fault, because here's a confession: It's my mom who first conjured the phrase, years before "American Appetite" was published. Yes, Mom, I should have attributed it to you. As penance, next time I'm in a white-tablecloth restaurant, I'll purposely spill my wine and suffer the Napkin of Shame as penance. Until then, I think it belongs to Frank Bruni.

-- Leslie Brenner

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