On Table Etiquette

I have never understood the American method of eating using cutlery, that long, drawn-out, fastidious process of holding the fork in the left hand while cutting the food, then putting down the knife and transferring the fork to the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. So affected, so inefficient.

Turns out (surprise, surprise) that it was a European custom, imported from France at some point during the 18th century, and unquestioningly adopted by Americans as a sign of great sophistication.

Just keep holding it with the left hand!
Just keep holding it with the left hand!

Slate magazine explains:

The cut-and-switch—like imperial units of measurement—counts among those European castaways that became Americanisms only when Europe itself changed. Today, the cut-and-switch is the equivalent of a mouthful of glittering white teeth, a calf-ful of glittering white sock, or a request for half-and-half—an absolute clincher that you stand in the company of a fellow lover of freedom. Jeanette Martin, the co-author of Global Business Etiquette, couldn’t think of another major country that fork-swaps. Even among Canadians, some zig-zag, but “Continental predominates.”

Well. We’ve had our fun. And now it’s time to stop. Americans prize efficiency—especially when it comes to food. Sure, a cut-and-switch partisan might argue that Americans already eat fast enough—whether we’re talking about actual fast food, practically predigested squeezable pouches and energy bars, or our enthusiastic and all but unique embrace of eating while walking and driving; you could argue that the cut-and-switch is just the kind of gastronomic speed bump we need more of. But what if we spend so little time at the table because we find fork-swapping so tedious?

Indeed. Although Britons are hardly in a position to talk, with their ludicrously inefficient use of the fork, tines pointing down:

Many Europeans stubbornly deploy their forks tines down—either as a spear, or, if the food isn’t stab-able, as a surface on which to awkwardly pile or smoosh food (awkward piling is particularly English—“How many peas can dance on the back of a fork?” asks Kate Fox, in Watching the English). But the pragmatic Americans who’ve abandoned the cut-and-switch almost always use the fork tines-up—i.e., as an efficient shovel—whenever it’s convenient to do so.

A shovel, there you go. Much more efficient.

More observations on British-American differences from Semi-Partisan Sam can be found here.

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