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.