The "bumpkin doesn't know which fork to use" cliche

(This one is a little GQ and a little IMHO, so I’m going here.)

JD Vance’s claptrap memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been made into a movie, which has renewed discussion about it among my mostly Appalachian circle. If you’re not familiar, the author grew up in Middletown, OH in a troubled family with roots in central Appalachia, and he escaped all of this and ended up at Yale.

In one scene, Vance is having dinner in some fancy Yale-adjacent dining venue, and he breaks into a sweat when confronted by the dizzying array of forks laid out for him before the meal.

Writing-wise, this is just hackery. Even if it actually happened, he should find a less cliched example to show that he was a fish out of water. (It’s far from the only example of hackery in Vance’s work.) But thinking about it more, I had a couple of questions:

  • Where did this cliche come from? I associate it with old sitcoms and maybe even older slapstick, but I can’t come up with a specific example.
  • Is this kind of super-formal multi-course place setting even still a thing? I’ve been fortunate enough to rub elbows at some very upscale dinners in my lifetime, and I can’t remember when I’ve ever had more than two forks in front of me prior to service. In my experience with modern formal dining, if there’s an oyster course the oyster fork is delivered either with or (usually) just before the oysters. I’m sure that if such things live on it would be in stuffy Yale dining clubs. But maybe I’m wrong and it’s more common than I think.

I think it will do best in Cafe Society. This is basically a Trope question about TV, Movies & Books.

I know it is an old trope, but that helps very little.

Inventing all kinds of weird cutlery was supposedly a Victorian affectation, but it was not all dumped on the table simultaneously:

I.e., you should never see more than 3 forks, not including the oyster/fish fork. They will bring you extra knives and forks as they serve you additional dishes.

Ok, but “amount of silverware” is half the cliché. The other half is “Everyone will know I’m a hick if I eat my oysters with my paté fork!”

Was that ever a common occurrence? Were complicated silverware settings ever laid as a “class trap” to gauge the upbringing/training of each guest?

I was at a fancy dinner once, where there were maybe a half-dozen forks. But I just whispered “Umm, which fork should I use now?” And the Ambassador’s wife smiled and brandished the fork at the “top” of her place setting, so I did, too. No judgement, no embarrassment.

I can guarantee she would not have cared if I’d used a different fork, and I doubt anyone would have noticed.

Except maybe a lazy writer…

Exactly. I’ve been to a few dinners that were formal enough that I wasn’t quite comfortable, and overwhelmingly I’ve found that people would rather put me at ease than scoff at my discomfort.

Old money Southern women have a particular talent for this–they will find the overly self-conscious person at the table and make them feel like they belong there without the least bit of condescension. They’ve done it to me and I’ve seen them do it to others. I’ve definitely incorporated that into what I think it means to be classy.

According to some sources I’ve read, it was actually used by the middle class and nouveau riche to “out-class” the old-money aristocrats. In the Victorian era, that fancy dinner service was a newfangled invention that you did not inherit from your ancestors. Knowing which fork to use was a demonstration, not of ancient breeding, but of modern culture. “Your father may be a lord, but my son is a gentleman.”

My simple rule is this: When in doubt use your fingers or a spoon.

The rule of thumb I’ve heard is you should generally start with the outermost eating utensils and work your way in towards the plate.

And if anyone says you’re doing it wrong, say “In my household, we always follow the Danish traditional table etiquette” and make them uncomfortable for never having heard of that.

I have been to a number of formal dinners as a drunk redneck, and I had zero trouble finding the correct utensil because there was exactly one correct utensil in front of me when the decision arose.

If the wait staff isn’t making things easy for you, then somebody probably wanted it that way.

WAG: It originated in Our American Cousin.

I haven’t read the Vance book, but I’ve heard other people talk about similar experiences, and apparently Yale and Princeton and Harvard were full of people who knew each other, who’d gone to similar prep schools, who had money behind them, and who assumed that people who were different were alien through stupidity, ignorance, or moral failing.

At Harvard, formalized in the dining clubs, and I’ll take your word for it that the same thing existed at Yale, except that, in living memory, the dining clubs were “normal” rather than “stuffy”.

So I’d add that to the fact that people are always more aware of their own failings, and say that both were probably true.

A few years ago, I listened to a Great Course about the Gilded Age, which discussed a very popular play of the era about a working class man who somehow came into a pile of money and embarrassed his family with his uncouth behavior. The silverware business probably came up in that one - I’ll see if I can find my notes on that course and find out when that play was from.

I think that’s true at a lot of elite universities. Plus I imagine it’s probably a bit different going to an elite college because you are hoping to work your way into a job at Deloitte or wherever and going to an elite college because that’s where all your friends from prep school are going to kick around until their trust funds kick in or their Daddy gets them a job at his hedge fund.

Speaking of Deloitte and forks - that was my first job out of business school and one of the things we had in our “new hire boot camp” was a formal dinner where we were taught all the rules for which fork to eat with, etc. This was 20 years ago, but even at the time it seemed a bit odd.

If it was after the balcony scene, I missed it.

There was a setting called Russian Service (aka service a la Russe) that featured a truly bewildering assortment of cutlery, glassware and dinnerware on the table at once.

The few times I’ve eaten in a really fancy setting, Russian service seems to have given way to the servers resetting the table between each course.

Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play? :grin:

I’ve read that at UK Royal banquets, the plates are switched between each course, and you eat as the Queen does. You start eating when she does, and when she finishes her course, that’s it. If there’s still food on your plate, you don’t get to finish it.

She also talks to the person on her right during the first half of the banquet, and the person on her left during the second half. (I think that’s the order she follows.)

That noted expert Dr. Johnny Fever said it was an organic method where you start with the outside and move inwards.

“A gentlemen is someone who makes others feel comfortable” - quote I read once.

I’m not sure talent is the word, isn’t that a southern bell trap? Create an overly elaborate show to display sophistication and then get bonus points when you delicately assist your guests in ways of etiquette? If displaying showing sophistication is the goal you’ll shine by comparison.