Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Knife-and-Forkalities

I'd intended to write a post on some food-ish topic or other, but couldn't find a chef I'd not already written about who inspired me, couldn't bring to mind any dish not already mentioned somewhere in these posts about which I could write more than one sentence. So...how about the actual mechanics of conveying delicious food prepared by chefs, or others, into the requisite bodily orifice?

Knives, forks, spoons, chopsticks. I've never mastered the last mentioned, so that's all you'll hear of 'em in this post. Knives and forks I have used, and in tandem, for as long as I can remember. Loose natural habits of the young eater, for me were tamed, and in a somewhat fascistic way, through many years of eating school lunches in our school's canteen - school being some 14 miles from home, a trip for Mum's sausages and mash wasn't ever feasible.

Whichever mistress was on duty in our High School dining room each day was entrusted with the education and gentrification of young diners in the art of elegant eating. Soup must be consumed using strokes of the wide-bowled soup spoon away from the body, not towards it, bread roll must be torn apart not cut with a knife. During the main course, we must, under no circumstance, hold our knife like a pencil, and using fork only to eat anything would be met by loud reprimand. When the course is finished knife and fork must be laid tidily together at the "at 5 o'clock" position on the plate, so as to make it easy for anyone clearing plates to pick them up from the left of each diner. Dessert, unless it be rice pudding or the like, must be eaten using dessert spoon and fork, not spoon alone. These rules stuck with me for many, many decades - until I arrived in the US of A.

As well as mangling the English language and its spelling, I found that Americans have mangled what I knew as table etiquette too. One handed fork use, with only occasional help from a knife? How odd, and how inconvenient. I'm having none of that, unless eating pasta I decided, after trying it for a while. I suppose, I thought archly, that Americans have devised their own version of a rather easy-going, jeans and tee-shirt type of table etiquette.

Wrong.

American-style table etiquette isn't, it turns out, as random as I'd first thought. In an article at Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker , Put a Fork in It, he reveals, as follows, calling the American, mainly one-handed, eating method "cut-and-switch":
....—the supposedly all-American cut-and-switch is in fact an old European pretension, of just the sort we decided to free ourselves from 237 years ago.

Yup. The cut-and-switch is originally European. According to Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College and the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, when forks first came to the European dining table, diners took their cues from the kitchen, where the fork would be held in the left hand to steady a slab of meat, say, and the right hand wielded the knife. So far, so good. But around the early 18th century, particularly in France, it became fashionable for diners to put the knife down after cutting, and swap the fork to the right hand — i.e. to cut-and-switch.

What explains the rise of the cut-and-switch? One theory: Fancy manners often fetishize delicacy, and it’s just easier to delicately convey food to your mouth with your dominant hand. Anna Post, Emily’s great-great-granddaughter, passed along another possibility. Back when dinnertime violence was a not too distant cultural memory, lowering the knife—even a rounded one—was intuitively associated with high manners. Indeed Goldstein describes how American fork-floppers lay the knife on their plate—blade facing in—as a “medieval position of trust.”

The cut-and-switch could also reflect garden-variety prejudice against the left hand. Even today, in much of the Arab world, the right hand alone is used for eating (traditionally without utensils), while the left is relegated to a less exalted realm of daily responsibilities. Nor should we underestimate the possibility that the cut-and-switch became popular precisely because it was cumbersome. Harry Mount, the author of How England Made the English, reminded me how often, in the contrary world of manners, “greater inefficiency can infer greater elegance.”

Nineteenth-century Americans acquired the cut-and-switch from France—“the arbiter of elegance” for Americans....
Well, well, well - who'da thunk it?

These days, at home I always put a knife and fork out for myself, just a fork for Himself. Sometimes, after scanning what's on the plate, if it all looks manageable with fork only, I'll go all jeans and tee-shirt, otherwise I'll use both knife and fork and feel comfortably at home.

14 comments:

Sonny G said...


Barring an unforeseen emergency, I hope I never again have to one of those "La ti fricken Da" dinners.

I see it as another form of Control. They start early telling us how to speak- dress- stand- walk- sit ans eat. forks knives and spoons OK, the rest of that crap is CRAP.
While we have 1/10 of he folks holding out their pinkie while they sip tea from a china cup, we have the rest working hard just to put food on the table and some of those don't know if there will be any food at all.

can ya'll see I have some negative feelings about that Proper silverware thing and all the pretense that goes with it lol.

Jefferson's Guardian said...

I'm definitely a cut-and-switch kinda guy, Twilight. Never cared for the English manner of two-handing it, and possibly the French were on to something when it came to a more sophisticated appearance. I suppose American adaption goes back to still having ill-feelings toward the British, which is not unreasonable.

As far as finishing the meal, or more appropriately -- showing I'm finished -- I was taught to place knife and fork in middle of plate, handles facing toward me, with knife blade toward fork. Napkin was always slightly folded and placed to left of plate. I've also heard placing the utensils at the top of plate (as in parallel to edge of table toward oneself) as acceptable.

I'm interested in other methods your readers share.

Sonny G said...


ps-- yes that number verification box shows but you can ignore it and click , publish your comment , anyway and it goes through just fine.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ I have a few similar feelings to yours on this myself. Although, some of the so-called etiquette is just a way of showing courtesy to those waiting on table (for instance, the way the cutlery is left on the plate, making it easy for someone to clear the plate without bits of cutlery falling all over the place.)
Other parts of table "etiquette" are pure snobbery or pretension and really serve no other purpose.

How one eats is a personal choice, and as long as it doesn't interfere with others' enjoyment of the meal, anything goes.

Twilight said...

Jefferson's Guardian ~ Back in the day, in a newly established USA, a Brit would have been persona non grata, their customs too, no doubt. :-)

There are variations in the way "they" tell us cutlery should be left on the plate, as long as it looks neat and makes it easy for plate to be cleared without mishap, I guess it matters little. I've never heard of leaving utensils at the top of the plate though, sounds a bit dicey for clearing purposes, unless the waiter has a very steady hand.

Twilight said...

Sonny (re the PS) - I'm getting the catchpa box now myself, even when I'm in the "admin" mode of the blog.
They've changed something again!

mike said...

Keep it simple! There's always the fork-spoon hybrid, spork or foon [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spork ]. Or the fork-knife combo, knork [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knork ]. Or the spife or knoon version of the spoon-knife [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spife ]. I and siblings found simplified pleasure and conquered our food with these items. I suppose we would have used these into adulthood had mother not considered social etiquette and the use thereof reflecting on her.

With the advent of fast food, aka finger food, for the past sixty years, proper use of eating utensils is a skill not endured by most. Using utensils with any degree of skill, regardless of style choice, has become the American method.

I am in favor of "whatever", assuming the user doesn't incur unusual noises, splatter, dribble, or create chipmunk-cheeks with the five-bites-in-one haul to the mouth. There is also the etiquette of allowing your table-mates to make fools of themselves without displaying laughter, disdain, or disgust toward them.

In some respects, I enjoy the renegade eater that has developed their own, individualized preferences. A friend always sips his soup from the bowel, much like it's a large cup...I was put-off at first, but have found it to be endearing and relish his bravado. Another employs bread as a favored utensil to scoop, sop, and deliver food to the mouth...no utensils required...an another refreshing style.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ LOL! I enjoyed your wry thoughts on this. :-D

I'm always in awe of husband's "degree of skill" with just a fork - years of practice I guess.

Regarding renegades, my mother and her tea drinking habit came to mind - she liked to pour very hot tea into the saucer and drink it, cooled from there. LOL! I never dared to do that myself though. And - I've probably mentioned in some post in the past - a couple of Irish sisters I knew during the years I worked in hotels - they always put whatever was served to them, at whatever meal, between two slices of white bread and ate it as a sandwich. It always looked delicious that way too!

mike (again) said...

Testing captcha...testing...


Sonny - I just tried commenting without the captcha and it did NOT work...I HAVE to use it.

FYI - "A CAPTCHA (an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart")"http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAPTCHA
Interesting that the Alan Turing movie, "The Imitation Game" has just been released and this pain-in-the-butt box has his name associated with it...LOL.

Sonny G said...

well dang,,,

not sure why I can post without typing the numbers.

hey are out to track you Mike, come hell or high water lol....

mike (again) said...

Oh, oh...I see I made a critical spelling error in my original comment: "A friend always sips his soup from the bowel, much like...". What was I not thinking! Should be "bowl"...LOL.

Sonny - In a post several days ago, I linked to an article regarding Google having a new system allowing a "recognized user" to proceed without verification. Google is tracking YOU, not me! LOL. I'm obviously not being recognized, since I verify. For a week, Google utilized photos of house address numbers, then went back to their usual. The addresses were easy for me to read.

Twilight (and all) - The much anticipated CIA torture report has been released. I applaud its release and it isn't favorable. I doubt that it discloses the full extent. I have to laugh at how it paints our top-elected and appointed as unknowing to the torture endeavor...gets them off the hook for war crimes. Even the CIA is fawning innocence by stating the efforts of the highly secret "Chrome" division worked independently and subversively. Uh, huh. What a bunch of scumbags and corrupt devils.

Sonny G said...

no problem on the typo''s Mike. I do it all the time.. this way ya'll know its REALY me and no one has stolen my ID lol..

I heard that news report last night.. my first thought was " who believes that crap "
this morning it didnt take long before several bloggers said " its all Obamas fault~!!.

eye roll and a gentle thump of my head on my desk..

Rossa said...

Table manners are more relaxed in England unless it's for a formal occasion. We use knife and fork when there is something on the plate to cut. Otherwise soup spoon, fork only or spoon and fork for pasta. A sharp knife for steak or chop when a table knife don't cut it!

Do use a butter knife as I prefer to keep butter in a butter dish with a lid rather than try and spread cold butter from the fridge. Don't like the spreadable types. I'm a sea salt butter fan.

Also have a cheeseboard with one of those cheese knives with the curved end for spearing the cut piece of cheese to put onto my plate. Another thing that only gets used on special occasions. Ditto the cake forks that very rarely come out at all. It seems very strange the range of utensils we have in this house....lol

Still use napkins, though paper rather than linen. But only when we have guests. Otherwise it's kitchen paper. Tablecloth and linen napkins will only come out for really special occasions. Though I do use table mats and smaller ones for the glasses.

Wine glasses get used for any colour of wine. Only champagne or sparkling wine gets served in flutes. Only other glassware on the table is the water jug and water glasses, usually tumblers. We do have whisky and brandy glasses but as we don't drink either they tend to get used for liqueurs i.e. Cointreau over ice.

Quite happy to eat off a tray rather than up to table. And eating with fingers is fine in my house. Though I do avoid eating certain things in a restaurant like prawns with the shell on as eating them with a knife and fork is too much like hard work.

As for those contraptions for eating snails.....don't eat them! And the nut crackers do double duty getting the top off a bottle or for turning a champagne cork that doesn't want to move.

Twilight said...

Rossa ~ Thanks for the update on how things are in England, knife and fork-wise these days. :-)

At Chez Twilight/Anyjazz we are a lot looser than at Chez Rossa! I cannot blame that on American custom, I've never been any kind of stickler on cutlery, dinnerware, glassware and suchlike.