Cutlery Conventions

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cutlery conventions

A 'proper' placesetting...perhaps the inspiration for twister? FYI, my lengthy search for the 'original source' of this image ended at No copyright infringement intended!!

It might seem a bit odd, but despite the fact that I spend my days literally surrounded by flatware (aka cutlery) I don’t often think about silver in terms of function. When it was made, who made it, what on earth that monogram is…that I spend a lot of time on, but how one actually uses one’s knife and fork not so much.

Last Wednesday’s post the Story of the Spoon, had lots and lots of wonderful comments, including this one from Suzanne Sokolov –

“Nan, what wonderful fun facts about such a common object. It’s fascinating to tie historic/cultural sensibilities to accepted practices (love the additional info on the Bronze Spoons). I’ve observed that within our own world, there is a distinct difference in the usage of eating utensils, even the spoon. Great post.”

I read Suzanne’s comment and immediately thought about the cultural differences in the way we hold and use our utensils.  Hopefully, this is what Suzanne was actually referring to!

One hand or two on the cutlery?

As Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde* have all been quoted as saying “America and England are two countries divided by a common language”.  After being married for nearly 17 years, Mr. Magpies and I are finally becoming fluent in both languages – although the word OK will still cause the occasional hiccup. Despite our proficiency with each other’s native version of English, we have some very distinct cultural mannerism that surface.

The way we use a knife and fork is a perfect example.

Mr. Magpies starts off with his fork in the left hand, knife in the right.  He will then use his fork to hold something down, cut it with the knife, put down his knife, transfer the fork to his right hand and use the fork right side up to scoop up what he has just cut. {exhausting :(}

On the other hand, I pick up my fork – holding it with the tines facing down – and knife, cut my food and use the blade of the knife to make sure some food is safely balanced on the back of my fork and then eat it. {simple ;)}

But why do we do this?

Both habits are common to our respective countries, but why should that be?  I can invent two separate reasons that account for my use of the two hand method:

  • I’m left handed, so moving the fork to my right is a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Boarding school inspired me and everyone I can remember to eat as quickly as possible.  Who had time to put down utensils and switch hands!

I mentioned this in passing to a friend on a phone call and she instantly told me a World War II story in which American spies/escaped POW’s (?) gave themselves away while eating in Germany because they used the American switch-hand method.

Google to the rescue

Living as we do in the age of instant answers I turned to our friend Google. I found a number of different answers and unearthed that Emily Post called the American method Zig-Zagging!

Here’s what WikipediaQuora, Chow had to say.  It’s worth scrolling down and glancing at the comments on Chow, I had a good laugh at some of them!

Would anyone else care to add their two cents/pence?


Suzanne, I know you mentioned spoons specifically and I have a further thought about that which I will explore next week!


* Some sources add Dylan Thomas to the list…but wan’t he Welsh?

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2 thoughts on “Cutlery Conventions

  1. IvetteNo Gravatar

    Yep. I know that spy story too. My father told it to us as he was teaching us to eat “a la Europa” in our early teens. Up until that time, we were taught American table manners. If my Edith Wharton is still intact, Americans were very proud of their more frilly table manners back in the day. It was considered very English to follow certain customs, but there they drew the line. Miss Manners would have us believe that American table manners (when done correctly PLEASE, so often it is not) are proper when in Rome (figuratively, not literally), if fussier.

    Since I learned to do both, I find that for me it’s a matter of one of two things a) who I am dining with, to include if I’m in Europe with European friends, or with George who is very Continental as you know, or b) laziness. I’ve adopted a la Europa because frankly, it’s easier. When I am feeling very dressed up and special occasioned, that is when I whip out the old American table manners. There’s a great scene in “Age of Innocence” (quelle coincidence on the Wharton) where we see Daniel Day Lewis not only sporting a very good American accent, but also eating with perfect American table manners.

  2. Claire TompkinsNo Gravatar

    I learned the European method in high school. Before that, I held my fork in my left fist with my thumb facing up; kind of cavewoman style. Then I’d transfer the fork to my right hand amid clattering. I find the Euro style much more efficient and more graceful too, once I got the hang of it.

    Now I’m going to start paying attention to how my friends do it!

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