Americans' use of knives, forks


After returning from a trip to London and Prague, I have a question: How and when did we (Americans) develop a different way of using our knives and forks? I think the European way seems much more efficient.

For readers less well-traveled than you, let us distinguish between the American and European styles of eating. A right-handed person eating in the European manner holds the knife in her right hand, the fork in her left. With the tines of the fork facing down, she pins the food to her plate and uses her knife to cut. Then, still using the fork in her left hand, she conveys the food to her mouth, the tines still facing downward.

A right-handed person eating in the American manner cuts the food in the same way, but after cutting, she puts the knife down, switches the fork to her right hand, and, with the tines facing up, brings the food to her mouth. To prepare for the next bite, she must switch the fork back to her left hand and pick up the knife with her right hand and start all over again.

In her Rituals of Dinner (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), Margaret Visser tackles the question of how and why Americans and Europeans went separate ways with forks and knives. Until the 17th century, she writes, forks were used - if at all - to get a grip on meat while it was being cut.

The knife was the essential utensil, and a man dining out generally would bring along his own knife, a sharp, potentially lethal instrument that could be used for various nonculinary tasks.

As Europeans' table manners evolved, however, the knife became tamer - smaller, single-edged, rounder - and the fork started its ascendancy. By the 19th century, Visser writes, the fashion was to "downplay the knife."

The culmination of this march toward daintiness was the introduction of the eat-and-switch method that we now term "American." By the 1880s, however, reason had prevailed in Europe, and everyone reverted to the original method, then known as "the English manner." In North America, however, "the former way of eating was not dislodged as it was in the rest of the world."

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.

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