Good Table Manners are the Art in Which the English Claim to Be Supreme
They Sneer at Other Nations Germany, France and America, Say the Britons, Cannot Compare With Them in Good Form at Meals — Use of the Knife, Fork, Spoon and Napkin
Let it be admitted that our army is a failure, has never won a victory and never will; admitted that our navy would have difficulty in sweeping six combined great powers off the sea; admitted that we cannot act up to the French standard or trade up to the German or hustle up to the American or cheat up to the Greek. But we cherish our little pride and prejudice. The Englishman regards himself and is generally regarded as the best dressed man in the world. He also plumes himself on having the best table manners. To the Frenchman may be conceded the supremacy in the preparation of food, while the production of it owing to the decay of our agriculture, may be left to such outlying places as Siberia and Chicago.
But when it comes to the eating of food the Englishman asserts his supremacy, for if the highest art be to conceal art the highest etiquette of eating should be the triumphant pretense that one is not eating at all. And here the Englishman wins. He can eat his way through a seven course meal quite unobtrusively. It was not always so.
Lord Chesterfield, as I have been reminded by Mr. Philip Wellby's edition of the “Advice to His Son,” sketches the awkward man who “holds his knife, fork and spoon differently from other people, eats with his knife to the great danger of his mouth, picks his teeth with his fork and puts his spoon, which has been in his throat twenty times, into the dishes again. If he is to carve, he never hits the joint, but in his vain efforts to cut through the bone scatters the sauce in everybody's face. He generally daubs himself with soup and grease, though his napkin is commonly stuck through a buttonhole.”
That napkin is a test of table manners, and the nice conduct of the napkin caught the attention recently of the German Emperor, who saw one of his guests tucking the napkin under a chin. “Do you want to be shaved?” was the Imperial question. England's supremacy— in the matter of soup— lies in the spoon. An Englishman is taught to take soup from the side of the spoon. And he is the only man on earth who emerges from soup with the white shirt front of a blameless dinner and without the aid of a tucked napkin. He lays the napkin across his knees and uses it when necessary without ostentation.
That discreet conduct of the knife is the Englishman's pride and prejudice at table. There is no nation which (in its upper middle classes) reaches the English standard of the nice conduct of the knife, though we are assured that in the highest circles— among ameers, shahs, sultans, dukes and millionaires—there is a beautiful uniformity of deportment. Our insular instinct is to make the knife as inconspicuous as possible, for there is some suggestion of brutality in the slicing of bits of corpses that are doomed to keep our rile bodies alive.
No such feeling restrains the German eater, and the French diner is scarcely less sensitive. The German who feeds in the average restaurant will shovel his food into his mouth with the blade of his knife and when in a difficulty, will cram it down with the handle, nor has he the least scruple about depositing the rejected residue upon the floor. Moreover, with the Continental eater, the knife enters into conversation. It is retained in the gesticulating hand, it is raised imploringly to the celling, and — heaven!— it is brought into strange circles of argument. It is used to point the conclusion at the very breast of the fellow diner.
When you see a man waving his knife at table, you may be sure he is an alien. “We wear no swords here,” as Sir Lucius O'Trigger says, nor do we argue with knives at table.
The English knife, with all its blood thirsty suggestions, is reduced to the lowest and least obtrusive office. It is not even dug into the salt cellar, for England has reached the delicacy of salt spoons, and only in a Soho restaurant will she give you the real savor of the continent by providing salt cellars without spoons. You shove your knife into the salt and dream of Paris, Bohemia, the gypsy life in which “you dip your fingers in the pot.”
England has suppressed the knife at table. The Englishman does not use it for argument or menace or persuasion or even for the taking of salt. His table manners enjoin that the knife shall never be raised. The properly conducted knife at table never reaches forty-five degrees above the horizontal.
Unfortunately the American goes a little too far in the desire to avoid the obtrusive use of the knife and takes refuge In obtrusive concealment. Many Americans will slice their meat with the knife, lay the knife by the sitle of the plate and put the pieces into the mouth with the fork held in the right hand. Now, this is injustice to the knife, which has its modest function.— London Chronicle, 1907
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