Miss Manners: Cake Serving Protocol Explained

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was helping serve cake at a birthday party. A few dozen guests were seated in the main part of the house and we brought cakes and ice cream to their seats. The host is a hospitable soul who would never take the first piece of cake while his guests were still waiting.

I think two of his elderly relatives would be considered priorities. They sat separately, each surrounded by a group of family and friends, on opposite sides of the same room.

To serve them first, I would have had to walk past everyone chatting with them, hand a piece of cake to a lovely great-grandmother, and leave the rest of the group momentarily disappointed. Then I could have brought a piece of cake to the other much-adored elderly relative, leaving the rest of that group briefly disappointed, and then served the rest of the guests in the order in which they were seated.

Alternatively, I could have gone around the room, with the guest sitting closest to the kitchen probably getting the first piece. Or maybe I could have found a tray so I could carry more than two pieces of cake on each trip.

What does Miss Manners recommend?

GENTLE READER: Although you haven’t said whether it’s a child’s birthday party, the presence of the honoree’s great-grandmother strongly suggests it. Plus, Miss Manners likes to think of a child hospitable enough to care about their guests.

If she’s wrong, you can take comfort in knowing that adults don’t usually ask for dessert and have the experience of knowing theirs will arrive in due time. You can serve older guests safely without risking tears from those nearby.

But children’s birthday parties have etiquette that can apply to other gatherings, provided the majority of guests are too young to make a long division. The label is based on three assumptions: 1. All, or almost all, children want cake. 2. Now. 3. Most adults don’t do it, or at least say they don’t.

The first step in such a service is to recruit as many able-bodied adults as possible to begin transporting slices and ice creams as quickly as they can be served. Serve each table, clockwise, starting with the birthday child (who traditionally gets an exemption from waiting) and working outwards.

By putting the adults to work, the service will be completed so quickly that everyone should have something before the complaints start coming back that Oliver is lactose intolerant, Grandpa didn’t want cake and Isabella wanted some. Peach ice cream, not pistachio.


(Please send your questions to Miss Manners on her website, www.missmanners.com; to his email, dearmissmanners@gmail.com; or by postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)

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