Drawing inspiration from James Lipton (or maybe Will Ferrell playing the part of James Lipton on SNL), we periodically interview someone we find interesting and inspiring. In our first installment, we talk to author and advice-giver Miss Abigail.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Abigail Grotke, aka Miss Abigail. I began collecting advice books back around 1985, and the collection has grown to over 1,000 books since then. I’ve scoured these books to glean wisdom from advice-givers of yesteryear, and have been doling out advice from classic advice books on the web since 1998. The best-of the website was turned into a book, Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, and the book recently inspired a play, which is opening Off-Broadway on October 24 and is starring Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) as Miss Abigail!
I have an extensive background in print and digital publications and a keen interest in historical materials and pop culture, not to mention a love of crawling around dirty used bookstores to find the perfect book to add to my collection. During the day, I work on digital library projects for the Library of Congress (currently I help archive the Internet), and have previously worked in the publications office of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 2004, I was named one of 55 Library Journal “Movers and Shakers,” an annual feature which sets out to identify “emerging leaders in the library world.”
I live in an old house in Takoma Park, Maryland, with my talented musician husband Denis Malloy, and our terrier mutts Felix and Lulu.
What is your “recipe” for success?
Good friends, good wine, good food, good fun!
If you weren’t an expert advice-giver you would be…
Well, since it’s all a hobby, the expert advice-giver actually answers the question “if you weren’t a government employee what would you be”?
If your personality could be described as any casserole, what would it be?
A classic chicken pot pie. Warm, comforting, with a crust that is a bit flaky at times.
What dish from your childhood brings you the most comfort and why?
Grilled cheese. It’s the only thing I ate for years, and I still get a lot of joy from them, particularly with a nice hot cup of tomato soup.
Best piece of advice you would give to a seventeen-year-old girl going on her first date to a fancy restaurant?
I’d have to stick with table etiquette advice, because manners are so important to making a good first impression. And the seventeen-year-old has probably not had much experience in fancy restaurants (she must have found a great date!).
I consulted with Betty Betz’s Your Manners are Showing: The Handbook of Teen-Age Know-How (1946). She says: “It’s not easy to make sparkling small talk if there’s a major conflict starring a knife and a fork whirling around your brain. Basic table strategy is simple, like all good manners. Once you learn the routine, your table manners will come naturally…”. In addition to the usual advice about where your drinking glass is and starting with the outer forks, knives and spoons, the author gives a few specific tips that might be helpful to our seventeen-year-old girl:
“Always remember to raise the food to your mouth — don’t duck your head over your plate like a hungry bird of prey. Don’t play games with your food, and never twiddle with the silverware. Habits like these make you appear ill at ease, so be smooth; remember to keep your hands on your lap when you’re not eating.
Be as attractive as you can at the table — this means not talking with your mouth fill, and avoiding unpleasant or off-color conversations. Don’t sprawl on the table or tilt back on the legs of your chair. Never comb your hair during a meal, and if you feel a sneeze coming on, turn your head away from the table. …
If you happen to make a mistake, brush it off lightly and don’t let it ruin your evening.”
This tip from Sophie C. Hadida, in her 1950’s book Manners for Millions, might also come in handy: “It is discourteous to order at a restaurant any food which through its odor may disturb others at the table. Such foods are strong cheese, onions, chives, garlic.” Ms. Hadida also provides some advice for the boys – hopefully this girl’s date will pay attention to this one!
“I once heard a young man say, ‘I should care whether my girlfriend likes onions or not. If I want to eat onions, I eat them. If she doesn’t like it, she knows what she can do.’”
Such a person is the personification of selfishness. The poor girl may be helpless. She has no other boyfriend at the present time, and is forced to go out with Jack, who chooses to eat onions that evening. No one wants to be accused of having halitosis. Eating onions is courting a form of halitosis which is really more objectionable than the unavoidable kind, because the implied discourtesy irritates.
Elbows on the table…yes or no?
Oh, most definitely not. In an 1880 book called Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society, written by John A. Ruth, the author advises “Keep your elbows at your side, so that you may not inconvenience your neighbors.”
I’ve also got a book titled “Elbows Off the Table: Manners for Teen-Age Christians.” (1957) I checked that, as it seemed to be the perfect reference on this topic. This author’s advice – oh wait, a surprise!: “Don’t put your elbows on the table, except between courses. Don’t lean. In fact, don’t put your left hand anywhere on the table; put it on your lap.”
We’ve all been on those dates when the check comes and conversation instantly becomes strained…should the girl nicely get out her wallet to pay or is that the man’s responsibility?
While times have changed and sharing the tab is much more common, sensitivity may still be a concern if the boy and girl don’t know each other well (if it is early in the relationship). Back in 1950, Evelyn Milles Duvall in her Facts of Life and Love provided some advice that might still ring true: she mentions that Dutch-dating, “wherein the girl and boy share the cost, is not a common practice in most communities — perhaps because the boy’s pride is involved. A girl must be extremely tactful; boldly buying her own ticket or handing him the cash in public may be offensive and embarrassing to him. It is usually wise to have the arrangement definitely understood in advance and to give the boy the money before leaving the house. In some cities a girl dutch-dating with a boy at a restaurant can simply ask the waitress to give her a separate check.”
Your spouse called and his Aunt Edna is coming into town and coming over for dinner. Quick– what is your go-to meal?
Luckily my spouse does most of the cooking, so I’d help do the dishes! But if I were in charge of cooking, and I had anything in the kitchen, I’d do some steamed artichokes, mashed potatoes, and probably some baked salmon. Then I’d top it off with a flourless chocolate cake!
If someone wrote a book about you, what would the title be?
Romancing the Artichoke
To learn more about Miss Abigail, visit her website at www.missabigail.com .