Why are American manners different?
Europeans hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right and, when food is cut, it is carried to the mouth by the left hand. The knife is always in use, not only for cutting, but also for pushing and for dabbing gravy onto the potatoes and other such useful functions. There are some differences between the English and the Continentals, for though both keep forks in the left hand, the English keep the tines turned over and pile food onto the back of the fork. Beginning with meat as a platform, they may smooth on potatoes into which they press peas and then transport the whole mouthful at once. Other Europeans turn the tines over after cutting and push food onto the fork with a knife. But for many years American etiquette dictated that the fork must be switched to the right hand after the food is cut, and that the knife should rest on the edge of the plate. During actual eating, the left hand was supposed to lie idle on the lap.
This cumbersome and awkward switching of hands continues today even though it was declared out of date as far back as 1948 in “Vogue’s Book of Etiquette,” written by Millicent Fenwick, who was then an associate editor of Vogue and is now the United States representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. After describing the old rule, Mrs. Fenwick wrote, “Today, it is reversed so commonly that the left-handed method is almost preferred to the other. Both are perfectly good usage, but it is now axiomatic that whenever food is cut with a knife, the left hand can quite naturally carry it up to the mouth.” Even though the European method is smoother and more efficient, as any time-motion study would prove, most Americans persist in this “zig-zag” method, as it is described in “The New Emily Post’s Etiquette” by Elizabeth L. Post. The author suggests that Americans are reluctant to follow the European method because they feel it would be “putting on airs to adopt a foreign way of eating.” Mrs. Post advises, “I can see nothing wrong in adopting a custom that seems more practical than your own.”
Letitia Baldrige, who revised “The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette,” also considers the Continental style more “sensible.” In preparing this book, which was published in 1978, Miss Baldrige tried in vain to discover how the zig-zag method developed in the United States. “I even called the Library of Congress but they could not come up with anything,” she said. “English nannies,” she continued, “always teach children to pile food up on the back of the fork because that is the quickest way to get the meal over with. Also, the food tastes delicious that way.” (Miss Baldrige also said she had been told that double kissing was meant to bless both sides of the brain.)
Perhaps in the early days of our country, the change in rules was a populist protest against royalists. Or, as a European friend suggested, onehanded eating may be a holdover from frontier days, when it was necessary to keep one hand at the ready for self defense. Left-handed Americans have, perhaps, the best of both worlds. Those I know hold the fork in the right hand, cut with the knife in the left hand and eat without changing hands. – By Mimi Sheraton, N.Y. Times News Service, 1983
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