On forks, knives and the American way

A while ago, one of the Advice Column Wonder Twins reported that the way “polite” Americans use forks and knives stems from revolutionary times, when political arguements turned violent frequently. According to Dear Landers, keeping the knife on the table prevented its use as a weapon if a dinner discussion became heated enough to provoke fighting.

This sounded pretty fishy (my girlfriend said, “Couldn’t the hand on the lap hold a gun? That’s not polite.”). An earlier thread came to the conclusion that the practice started as an affectation so that colonial Americans (obessed with being cultured) could out-etiquette each other. Snopes and UrbanLengends.com were of no help (for once). The Landers Syndicate isn’t known for veracity, but could they have cut to the truth?

For those who don’t know, Americans silverware etiquette is as follows: The fork is held in the right hand, and the left hand is kept on the lap, unless one needs to cut something. Then, the left hand leaves the lap and takes the fork, and the right hand holds the knife. It’s pretty awkward. Some might say it’s pointless.

i thought all American etiquette was supposed to be intricate and pointless and immune to logic. that way you can spot those horrid lower-class people in an instant and begin to discriminate against them.

case in point: salad versus dinner forks. is there even a difference? why couldn’t they just have two identical forks out on the table so it didn’t matter?

it’s all pointless. and that story is bullshit.

my parents grew up poor and were thusly obsessed with making the right impression/manners/etiquette (my father can still fly into a rage if i don’t stand up to introduce myself every time a person enters the room). as an adult, i have decided that i am proud of my class background and can safely ditch etiquette without worries.

sometimes, eating with your elbows on the table is much more comfortable. and anyone who questions me can beware of the knife that stays in my right hand throughout the meal…:wink:

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I went out for dinner for my mother’s birthday. About half way into the meal, my mother started laughing, and told everyone to watch how funny I cut my meat… I do it the “American” way… I got the last laugh when she realized she was the only one who kept her knife and fork in the same hands.

(This will be a minor hijack, tangential to the question in the OP.)

Actually, there is a difference. (Or there should be, unless someone is passing off two identical forks as a salad form and a dinner fork).

A few years ago I read an excellent book called The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. It examines the engineering and the necessity which resulted in creations like the paperclip and the stapler, and it devoted quite a bit of time to flatware.

At one time, people ate just with their knives–they stuck the point in the meat or bread or whatever, and lifted it to their mouths (when they weren’t eating with their hands). Some food items, though, weren’t well-suited to this method of eating, hence the development of the fork, which is really just a bunch of tiny knives held together. But not all forks are good for the same thing; a knife desgined to penetrate a beef shank might not be good for picking up loose leaves of lettuce.

As humans have expanded their food choices, all kinds of new flatware have been created to deal with different foods.

pldennison is on the right track. per Petroski:

  1. Europeans first ate with two knives–one (usu. the left) holding the meat in place, the other cutting, spearing the cut portion of food, and raising it to the mouth.

  2. Then people added a second spike to the left-hand knife, creating a two-tined fork.

  3. In Europe, by the 18th cent., the current Euro. method (knife always in right hand, fork always in left) had become widely standardized

  4. But in Colonial America, forks were extremely rare: “knives, spoons, and fingers, with plenty of napery, met the demands of table manners.” I don’t know why. (Petroski doesn’t say.) I imagine they were considered too expensive, or somesuch.

  5. Petroski concedes: “How the present American use of the knife and fork evolved does not seem to be known with certainty”

  6. But he speculates (based on the writings of archaeologist James Deetz) that the colonists held knife in right hand, spoon in left (in place of a fork), pinning the food to the plate with the spoon (inverted), cutting with the knife, and then transferring the spoon to the right hand and turning it over to scoop up the food.

Gosh, I’ve ALWAYS kept my fork and knife in the same hands. I have never in my entire life switched hands for my fork, and I don’t recall anyone ever commenting on it. My parents DO do this, though, so I guess they learned it when they were kids but chose not to teach my sister and I.

I remember seeing a film once (an older mystery/spy/ thriller) where someone discovers a spy that was pretending to be European because they ate American-style (left hand in the lap, changing fork hands, etc.) Does anyone else remember this movie?

There is a difference. A salad fork has shorter tines, and usually has 4 tines, which would make it easier to pierce leafy greens or scooping up other vegetables. A dinner fork has 3 tines that are longer, which helps to hold down that porterhouse you’re carving into. There are also other forks, such as mussel forks that facilitate the removal of the flesh from the shells.

No, it’s not pointless. If it were, we’d all be feeding like pigs at the trough. Having some semblance of table manners is one of those things that elevate us from being a common animal.

But, I do agree that the story the OP is relating to is false. What I had heard about the evolution of American table manners came from the time of the American Revolution, but it was developed when Americans were attempting to be as un-English as possible, even down to how they held their eating utensils.

Class background and basic etiquette are not seperate entities. Just because one grew up poor (as I did, too) does not give license to acting like a boor in a dining room. I bet the ladies just love going on dinner dates with you. :rolleyes:

Screw that. I always hold the knife in my right hand when something needs a cuttin. I don’t put it down at all, until the object of the cuttin has been completely devoured. It’s kind of awkward putting the food in my mouth with my left hand though, so I could imagine someone switching hands in order to avoid poking themselves with the fork while trying to put the food in their mouths. I would think that this is why people started doing it to begin with. If I want to stab someone, the fact the knife isn’t in my hand at the time isn’t going to stop me.

i really wasn’t talking about basic etiquette. like i said, my parents were obsessed. i chew with my mouth closed, rub my lips raw from wiping with napkins, eat slowly and fastidiously–trust me, i am a credit to our class!

what i find optional are all the “rules” that have nothing to do with my ability to eat a meal neatly and considerately. i shall be ditching those and i guarantee i’ll still have more class than 99% of the people in the restaurant.

and the whole 3/4 longer/shorter tines thing is a non-issue. i know they are minimally different, but that minute difference really doesn’t warrent an extra piece of silverware, does it? if utility is so important, can i have a fish fork and an extra-wide fork for eating peas and corn?

i am here to declare what is by far the most useful tool for eating salad:

chopsticks. try it sometime. sure beats stabbing that crouton, hoping it doesn’t explode into dust…

and yes, the ladies do love me.

Hijack here, but don’t you just love “logical conclusions” like this? “If the knife’s on the table, no way would anyone just pick it up in an argument! You can’t get blood all over the tableware!”

I’ve been to several restaurants, some somewhat ‘upscale’, that provided two identical forks.

I can’t even think right now how I use mine - I think I do switch my fork from my right to my left to cut, but I rarely eat foods that require cutting with a knife - the fork is usually enough.

My WAG is that putting the fork down and picking up the knife is a deliberate act that might slow down a potential knifer. One might be less likely to stab if one isn’t holding a knife, shoot if one isn’t holding a gun, lick if one isn’t holding a lollipop, etc.

Of course, the story could be completely bogus, although improbable things happen all the time. Does anyone have any evidence for the advice columnist story?

I had been focusing more on the “American Way” side of the story, rather than the “stabbing people” side.

But my guess is that whoever first told this story is conflating the story of the origins of American table etiquette with the origins of the “keep your elbows off the table” rule, whose equally dubious origin is as follows:

in Medieval times, people were required to keep their elbows off the table because it made it too easy to stab someone if a disagreement broke out.

Sounds like more BS to me, but that’s what I’ve always heard.

Hmmm. Nobody has brought up the reason I was told, one of the earliest “imponderables” or “urban legend” type things I remember hearing.

According to this one, again, it stems from the time of the American Revolution, but was specifically adopted as a secret signal by revolutionary organizations like The Sons of Liberty before the war broke out, and used to identify each other in public places. After the war, it entered the culture as everybody wanted to associate themselves with the revolutionaries.

My mother vectored this story to me, in fact. Dubious, but no more so than some of the other theories.

I’ve always done the hand switching (American) thing when eating… here’s why I do it:

I am right handed. When I am eating with my fork, I like using my right hand because I have better control over it. When I am cutting something, I switch the fork to my left hand because I am only going to be holding something in place with it while I use my stronger and more dextrous right hand do perform the actual cutting.

At times, this may have the unintentional effect of making me appear (at first glance) more classy. I am then forced to belch the names of the other people at my table until the illusion is dispelled.

My parents had the typical middle-class concern over etiquette, but not obsessively so. When we were kids we were told not to put our elbows on the table, though I never
quite got the point of that. We were also admonished not to talk or open our mouths while chewing, which is a good idea.
Nothing irritates me as much as hearing people smack their food, and seeing a little quid of food being masticated.

However, as far as I can remember they never said anything about transferring the fork. Be that as it may, I have a tendency to eat too fast, particularly when very hungry, and I sometimes consciously transfer the fork to slow myself down.