Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dining Etiquette: The Tale Of The Knife And Fork

I watch a few of those Masterchef TV shows.   It’s an English franchise, with spin-offs made in Australia and Canada.  So the dining conventions are European, and I see a lot of the judges holding their cutlery in the preferred European fashion, with the knife in the right hand and the fork, upside down, in the left.  It’s ridiculous. 

To watch these people, who presumably have a lot of experience with the knife and fork so deployed, attempting awkwardly to find their mouths with a load of carefully crushed peas and mashed potatoes balanced on the bottom of an upturned fork held in the non-dominant hand is usually cringeworthy and often hilarious. 

I am assured by an English friend that the lefties among them fare no better, being constrained by fashion to hold their knives in their left hands and their forks with similar difficulties in their right hands.  I could not say with any certainly where this trend began.  Not too long ago, most Europeans ate with one utensil, probably a spoon.  The fork is a somewhat recent invention.  Just watch one of those movies about Henry VIII and watch him go at it with his hands and maybe a knife.  It may have something to do with a perceived necessity to hold the knife in one’s dominant hand, but whether that is because one needs to apply a surgeon’s grace to one’s meat cutting, or whether the knife must always be available for self-defense, is anyone’s guess. 

The gourmands who judge these cooking shows should by this time have acquired some facility for both of the skills required with the fork, in the first place the balancing of the food on the convex bottom side of the fork, and in the second place, that of not spearing one’s cheek with the tines of the fork.  They are certainly game enough, but to me they look a lot like the Chinese tourists that I often see in the breakfast rooms at South East Asian hotels.  Many of these Chinese adventurers have obviously never used a fork before, maybe never even seen one.   They spear something, a piece of fruit or something, and then staring cross-eyed at the payload they very carefully more the food towards their mouths.  They do it with their right hands, by the way, and that alone makes them seem more reasonable in these matters than the Europeans.
South East Asian countries seem to me to be the most practical in the matter of dining etiquette.  All meals are rice based, and all meals are prepared so that the dish can be eaten with a spoon, held in the right hand.  A fork is held in the left hand and it is used almost exclusively for moving food onto the spoon.  The knives are all left in the kitchen. 

Europeans love to make fun of Americans, they love to act like we’re all so stupid and provincial.  They mock us for switching our knives and forks back and forth constantly while eating.  I guess a lot of Americans do eat in this fashion, choosing to both cut food and place food in their mouths with their dominant hand.  Be it a foolish custom or not, it has the advantage of allowing for the greatest degree of control for both instruments.  It seems to me that most Americans could place a forkful of food in their mouths with their eyes closed.  Try that left handed. 

In my case, I have no more desire to be constantly switching the knife and fork back and forth than any of the European elitists.  So I never do any switching.  Before my twenty-first birthday I had discovered that I was perfectly capable of wielding a knife against mere food with my left hand.  This frees my right hand for the delicate task of guiding the food to my mouth.  It’s only cutting a steak.  It’s not like you were trying to whittle the Statue of Liberty out of oak. 

I hold my fork right side up, which only seems prudent.  It’s much easier in every way, and after all, shouldn’t the bottom be facing down?  Aren’t those the rules, from physics to engineering, and everything in between?  Are we not reasonable people?  Can we not at least agree that a fork is best deployed right side up? 

Tradition is strong with the Europeans, and that might be why they eat the way that they do.  Maybe long ago some famous king ate that way and decreed that everyone in France or somewhere had to eat just like he did.  Whatever the reason, I would not expect this tradition to change any time soon.  The problem of global warming, indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian Stand Off, will be solved and done with and Europeans will still be dropping insufficiently crushed peas onto their vests because of this silly habit.  

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