GUEST COLUMN: <span>Ringing the Freedom Bell</span>  

Ruby

I recently had the privilege of observing a debate over the proper use of a knife and fork. Unfortunately, one speaker devolved into proclamations of the way “civilized” people eat and sank to accusations of a political nature. Suddenly “not eating correctly” became tantamount to being an Ugly American.

That got me to thinking and, as usual, checking online resources for table manners. A plethora of information to sift through.

For example, the Chinese consider belching during a meal good manners. High praise for the cooks and servers. Manners aside, considering the causes for belching, I'm puzzled. Anything from eating too fast and swallowing air to acid reflux and dyspepsia. And other causes, none of which are particularly healthy.

Well--if you go to China, remember to belch so you won't be judged rude or ungrateful for that great meal. Here, though, you probably want to skip the custom.

But getting back to the argument about the knife and fork. It boils down to two customs, the American and the Continental. Objectively, neither is considered right or wrong. They're just two different styles.

Utensil usage dates back to ancient times, when primitive (by our standards) knives and forks were used for cooking, cutting, and serving. Not for eating.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and you find etiquette for hand-washing. Since food was eaten with the hands, washing was important. “National Geographic” says it became a power tool. Dinner guests stood when the King entered the hall and remained standing while he washed his hands. Sometimes elaborately, while you drooled and shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for him to sit down.

When you could eat, there were other rules. Like don't touch your nose or ears and wipe your lips before drinking from that tankard of ale.

The use of utensils coincides with the rise of the metal-work industry. In place by the 10th century in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The West still used their hands, though. Men could use a “pointy” knife to cut and eat their meat. Women could not--they had to depend on men to cut it for them. I guess a woman with a knife was automatically a threat to the men around her . . .

By the 18th century, the majority of Europe had converted from hands to utensils. Interestingly, hand-washing began to fall by the wayside. Its importance was clearly reinstated in 2019.

So, where does this knife and fork argument come in? What we call the American style predates the Continental. Settlers brought it with them from Europe--especially England--and it prevailed. The Continental style evolved with the upper class in Europe at around 1850.

What is the difference? Americans typically eat with their right hand. But they also cut food with it, requiring a shift of hands for the utensils. Emily Post called this the “zig-zag” method. Not as efficient as cutting and eating with the left hand, with the fork tines turned down (non-threatening), not up.

Chef Albrich says “These rules are explicitly intended to prevent utensils from appearing threatening.”

This is also why you should never gesture with your knife or fork, or point them at a dining companion (etiquette rule number 999). They may mistake it as an act of aggression, escalating to a trip to the ER.

But aside from all of this, why should the knife and fork usage cause such rancor? When I see someone eating the Continental way, at most I register that they must not be from here. If I were in Europe, I wouldn't suddenly change to awkwardly trying to eat with my left hand.

Nor would I accuse my hosts of being “wrong” or “uncivilized.” We're simply different. And that is why I wouldn't appreciate such an antagonistic reaction to the way I eat. If I changed, I would feel conspicuous here--possibly even pretentious.

It seems, if someone wants to take issue with table manners, they could find something more suitable. Like chewing with your mouth open. Or talking with your mouth full of food, which can ultimately result in spitting food at you companions.

Or maybe even saying “Wow!! That was a great meal!” And belching two or three times to show that you meant it.

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