Why don’t Americans know how to use a knife and fork?

Now we know: Answering the foodie questions you didn’t know you had

Cutlery etiquette: two ways about it

Cutlery etiquette: two ways about it

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This week’s query comes from reader Mark Boyden, a food enthusiast and author of Cookbook as Farce, based in West Cork. “Ever notice how Americans will cut three to four pieces of meat with a knife and fork, put the knife down, and then eat each piece with the fork before cutting some more?” Boyden asks.

Turns out, there are two ways with cutlery: the American style and the European style. According to thekitchn.com “the ‘American’ involves having your fork in your left and your knife in your right when cutting your food, then putting the knife down and switching your fork to your right hand to eat, tines facing upwards. With the ‘European’ method, the fork remains in the left hand and the knife helps coax your food on to your fork. The tines remain facing downwards.”

But here’s the twist: a rather thorough article on tableware customs on slate.com by Mark Vanhoenacker puts forward the argument that the so-called American way was imported from Europe. The article quotes Darra Goldstein, an academic and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, as stating that the habit of putting the knife down after cutting became fashionable, most notably in France, in the early 18th century.

As the French were “the arbiter of elegance” for Americans at that time, according to Goldstein, the mode was fervently adopted stateside.

American spies

It wasn’t until the 1850s that the cutlery tide turned in Europe. In a Huffington Post article, the etiquette expert Lisa Mirza Grotts quotes a mid-19th century French etiquette book as saying “if you wish to eat in the latest mode favoured by fashionable people, you will not change your fork to your right hand after you have cut your meat, but raise it to your mouth in your left hand”. It appears that the older custom never completely went out of fashion in the US. Legend has it that this style actually blew the cover of American spies operating in Germany in the second World War.

Suffice to say, both modes are technically correct. So, if you’re a diner who approaches your cutlery in the American style, the next time a European accuses you of having poor table manners I’d say you’re well within your rights to tell them to fork off.

Have a food question you need answered? Contact @aoifemcelwain on Twitter or by email atmagazine@irishtimes.com with “Now we know” in the subject line.

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