This is only for informal eating and, unless one's teeth will not permit, is best eaten on the cob, with the fingers of each hand firmly in control on each end. A long ear may be broken in half, but only a row or so at a time is buttered and seasoned, never the whole ear at once. Salt already mixed with butter, pepper, and perhaps paprika and shaped in little pats or balls may be provided by the considerate hostess, but a mixture of salt, butter, and pepper may be made, unnoticeably, on the side of one's plate, then smeared a little at a time on the corn as you are eating it. If the corn is to be cut off the cob, the cob is held on one end with the left hand and the kernels cut off a few rows at a time with the dinner knife (which had better be sharp for the purpose). The kernels are then seasoned and eaten a forkful at a time, as one eats peas. There are small silver spears for holding corn, but if they are provided you are quite free to ignore them for the more trustworthy fingers-directly-on-corn technique.
Small fish, fried, are usually served whole (though cleaned) with head and tail (smelt, sunfish, butterfish, etc.). The head is cut off first, then the fish is held in place with the fork and slit with the tip of the knife from head to tail and laid flat. The tip of the knife is then inserted under an end of the backbone, which with the help of the fork in a serving motion is gently lifted out, bringing with it many of the tiny bones in the fish. This skeletal material is laid on the side of the plate or possibly on the butter plate. The balance of the fish is then cut with the fork, or with the knife, if need be, for manageable portions. Any tiny bones still in the fish when it gets into the mouth, after being thoroughly cleaned in the mouth, are taken in thumb and forefinger, and are laid on the edge of the plate or on the butter plate if there is one. There is no objection to anyone hardy enough eating the head, and very tiny fish, such as whitebait (too small to clean), are eaten head and all in one bite. Never one for enjoying the sight of a fish-eye on my plate or in my chowder, I prefer to have even boiled fish (cod, haddock, salmon) come to the table with the head removed, but it is quite proper to serve it whole, with a lemon filling the gaping maw.
Pickles and Radishes
An antique relish fork makes a perfect server for pickled cucumber slices.
Whole pickles are taken with the fingers, as are radishes. These are never conveyed from the serving plate directly to the mouth (nor is anything else where a serving plate is provided) but are laid on the side of the dinner or lunch plate or butter plate. (And see "Salt.")
Potato Serving Forks
These should be rubbed with fat before baking and be presented immediately on coming from the oven, a cross having been cut neatly on the top to allow the escape of steam and to permit the pre-service insertion of a lump of butter, plus a sprinkling of salt and paprika. Then it is simple to hold the potato with the left hand while one explores its innards with the fork. But if a baked potato is presented whole it is taken from the dish with serving fork and spoon, then broken apart with the fingers for buttering and seasoning. It is then eaten with a fork, and if one wishes the skin may be cut up with a knife and eaten (never cutting it up in pieces all at once, any more than one would meat). If the skin is unwanted, the mealy part of the potato is eaten right from the skin with each portion seasoned just before entering the mouth. Except for a child, do not scoop out all the potato, set the skin aside and mash the contents all at once with butter and seasoning.
Are eaten with the fingers.
Originally called "Saratoga Chips," potato chips had a special scoop or server, designed especially to serve them.
Eaten with the fork after being halved with the fork, if necessary. It's poor manners to hold a piece of food with the fork and nibble off a manageable mouthful.
If really dry and impossible to eat with fork, may be eaten with the fingers.
A quarter of iceberg lettuce may be eaten with knife and fork, though gourmets and nutritionists both frown on the cutting of lettuce in salad preparation. Lettuce for mixed salad should be broken in bits and mixed at the last minute to preserve the vitamin content.
Victorian lettuce serving forks
If there is only one saltcellar on the table (as there is when a condiment set is used or when there is a master salt), the salt is always sent down the table to the honored guest, if there is one, or to the hostess before making the rounds of the family. If salt is needed for dipping radishes or celery or for corn on the cob it is placed on the edge of the plate, never on the table cloth. If open salts are used and no salt spoon provided, use a clean knife to take salt from a common container. If individual open salts are at each place, salt may be taken between thumb and forefinger.
Early Victorian salt cellar, long salt spoon and pepper shaker
All photos courtesy of Maura Graber of the RSVP Institute of Etiquette and Much of text from Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette