Mind your manners

Out with the barbarians!

Out with the barbarians!

I have a distinct memory of one of the first meals I ate with my British coworkers shortly after arriving in the UK in January 2005. It was one of those small but embarrassing moments that somehow get imprinted in your brain and, years later, randomly reappear and induce a new flush of shame.

We were at a pub and I had ordered your standard meat and veg fare. When the food arrived, I did what I’d always done – I took my fork in my right hand and my knife in my left hand, stabbed the fork perpendicularly into the middle of my steak, and then proceeded to cut the steak into bite sized pieces with my knife. At which point one of my coworkers, a middle-aged British male with a typically British sense of sarcastic humor, proceeded to thoroughly mock me for my barbaric American manner of eating.

After suffering that embarrassment, I quickly learned to eat the European way (which I still do to this day, so thoroughly ingrained is the habit) – the fork in the left hand, tines facing downward; the knife in the right hand; individual pieces of food are cut as you (slowly) eat them; and the tines of the fork remain facing downward at all times throughout your meal, with the knife being used to push food onto the back of the fork (which always poses a unique challenge when eating peas).

Perhaps my methods were somewhat uncouth even by American standards.  I believe the “proper” way to eat in the US is to start with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right hand, and once you are done cutting your food, put your knife down and switch your fork from your left to right hand, finally proceeding to eat with the fork “right side up” (tines facing upward). This is the so-called “cut and switch” or “zigzag” method, a clumsy Americanism (even most Canadians eat “continental” style).

I’ve also noticed that many other (most?) American people eat without a knife at all. When I stayed at my brother’s house, I’d have to get up and fetch myself a knife from the drawer every time we ate a meal, because they set the table with a fork only. The strangely-awkward-yet-elegant downward-left-handed-fork etiquette has become such second nature for me that I can no longer eat otherwise (unless, of course, I’m eating with my hands, maybe something like a Frito pie).

Who knows what is right, or what is best. But for sure, if you “cut and switch,” you might as well be waving an American flag at the dinner table. Brits just don’t do that, not even from a young age. Indeed, I have another distinct memory of being in a restaurant in Hove (a town on the south coast of England) and seeing a toddler (yes, a toddler – he was sitting in one of those children’s high chairs that restaurants have) primly eating his kiddie meal with his fork facing downward in his left hand and his knife in his right hand. Gotta love the Brits.

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4 Comments

Filed under Etiquette, Food

4 responses to “Mind your manners

  1. I had the same embarrassing situation when I lived in England! I was called “the American” because of my zig-zag method of eating for a few meals until I figured things out.

    It wasn’t until many years later that someone explained it to me. You keep your knife in your right hand in case dinner gets rowdy and you have to stab someone. You wouldn’t want your knife to be in your weak hand, or better yet, for you to be completely unprepared!

    Well, now I continue to eat with my knife in the right hand… Just in case dinner gets… Out of hand.

  2. Ed Avis

    Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Monty Python team’s stay in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming for the Python show had finished. The owner, Mr. Donald Sinclair, was very rude, throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive and placing Eric Idle’s suitcase behind a wall in the garden in case it contained a bomb (actually it contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam’s table manners for being too American (he had the fork in the “wrong” hand while eating), and it is reasonable to assume that his treatment of Gilliam partially inspired Basil’s treatment of an American visitor in the episode “Waldorf Salad”. (from Wikipedia)

  3. Pingback: Portugal Food Tour | Home Strange Home

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