Friday, 8 February 2008

Cutlery Customs

I'm not actually sure if I've mentioned it on the blog before, but one of my plans post-PhD is to spend a good few months travelling around the US. I've never been to America before, and there are just so many places that I would love to go, cities, wilderness, national parks, mountains, glaciers... At the moment I'm reading (well, skimming certain parts - like I really need to know right now what the best B&B in the Hamptons is) through the Lonely Planet USA guide, which weighs in at over 1200 pages just to try and get some more concrete ideas of things that I might want to do and get an idea of distances.

I came across something in the cuisine and eating section though which made me stop and re-read it just to make sure that I had read it right. The following was in a separate piece on cutlery etiquette:

"The method for holding cutlery seems extremely complicated at first: hold your fork in your right hand, and rest your left hand in your lap. When you need to use a knife, switch your fork to your left hand and cut with your right. Or just eat European-style - it won't be considered rude unless you rest your left hand on the table."

The idea of switching knife and fork seemed a little weird - everyone I know or have ever met seems to hold on to both at the same time - is that European-style? I don't know, it never occured to me that there was a "style" about how you use your cutlery.

The big question from me to you, dear American readers, is to ask why it would be rude if I rested my left hand on the table? Thinking about it, it doesn't feel like it would be a comfortable position, but then I wouldn't normally think about resting it in my lap whilst eating either, so what do I know?

Any illumination on the subject would be appreciated! More on my possible travel plans as time moves on and I have a clearer idea of when I'll actually be finished with my PhD. This weekend I'm planning to correct two of my chapters, and forge ahead with another one - but first I have to do my six hour marathon of marking this evening...

7 comments:

mattiecore said...

I thought it was considered rude to rest your elbows on the table; I'm not sure about this left hand business

I don't know, that style of etiquette seems a fairly antiquated collection of social constructions to me, so perhaps I'm not the person to ask.

noisms said...

I've heard that about the American style of cutlery before too. Using a knife to cut your food first, then setting it down and using the fork to eat it. In fact Bill Bryson cites the weirdness of American cutlery customs as one of the reasons why he chose to emigrate permanently to Britain.

noisms said...

So to answer your question, 'European' style is the way you or I would use cutlery...holding your fork in your left hand and knife in your right through the duration of the meal.

mattiecore said...

I have not once in my life cut my food, set my knife down, and then picked up a fork to eat it. Apparently, I have been using the "European" style my whole life, and I honestly imagine I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone I know who doesn't do the same.

Caffeinated Librarian said...

*chuckle*

Growing up in NC my mother taught me "switching hands" version (I never knew it was the "polite" American version - that's interesting) - it always felt awkward to me and I never could really master it, which just drove her crazy. So here I am as an adult, not able to do it right and not completely able to stop myself from automatically reverting back to my bad version of that style...story of my life. ;-)

However, as an adult I've had to be at some high class to-dos in Charleston and other places and most folks in those situations use the European style, which makes much more sense to me.

Regardless, in most social situations in the US, as long as you don't lean your elbows on the table, burp loudly, etc., most folks won't notice how you hold your silverware. Now if you're going exclusively to 5 star restaurants it might be a different story...

I do hope you look into visiting the South some on your trip. I know I'm partial, but I think it's a lovely part of the country. As much as I like to tease my SC neighbors, Charleston is a great place to visit. Ditto for Savannah and Asheville. Just don't visit in the summer if you can help it - the humidity and heat will melt you. :-)

Good luck planning your trip.

Bilbo said...

I agree with matticore: it's considered rude to rest your elbows on the table, although given what I've seen of many of my countrymen's table manners, elbows on the table should be the least of their concerns. Most Americans do the cutlery-switching thing; Agnes has been grinding the habit out of me for the last 25 years; "European Style" eating, with fork in left hand and knife in right, makes more sense, so I don't know why we Yanks do it the other way.

zero_zero_one said...

I assumed that European-style was how I've been doing it all along, and I've always been under the impression that "elbows on the table" was considered rude (though, now I think about it I've no idea why it is rude...).

Thanks for all your comments! I'll be reading through Lonely Planet USA for some time yet, and as I find interesting cultural titbits (that I guess even Americans don't know by the looks of things!) I'll share them.

I'll talk about some of my plans soon, but in answer to the query about destinations I'm planning on visiting all over. If I had the funds I'd go for every state...